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US Seeking Clarification of Israeli Housing Plans


The United States is seeking clarification of Israeli plans, announced Tuesday, to build some 1,100 new homes for Israelis in and around east Jerusalem. The State Department called the move a potential irritant to Middle East peace efforts. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Officials here stop short of outright criticism of the Israel announcement. But they nonetheless say it has the potential to upset peace efforts being shepherded by the United States, and say U.S. concerns will be raised at senior levels of the Israeli government.

Israel's Housing Ministry said Tuesday it was beginning the contracting process for the construction of 750 new housing units in the Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev in the northern part of east Jerusalem, and as many as 370 new units in Har Homa, another Jewish housing bloc on disputed land overlooking the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

The announcement of an earlier plan to expand Har Homa in December stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks only days after the U.S.-organized regional peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland.

At a news briefing, State Department Sean McCormack said U.S. diplomats would seek clarification of the housing plans from both the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

He said actions like Tuesday's announcement are potential irritants and distractions from the drive to get a final status Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement but said the United States does not doubt the commitment of Mr. Olmert or Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to that process.

"These two sides, the Israelis and Palestinians, know that it is in their interests to reach an agreement. We're going to do everything that we possibly can to help them. We are going to do everything that we can to rally the support of the international community to help them reach an agreement. And there is no doubt in our mind, at all, that both sides are equally committed, deeply committed, to trying to reach an agreement," he said.

Though he declined to provide specifics, McCormack said U.S. diplomats agree with Israeli officials who have reported progress in talks this week between Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator and former prime minister Ahmed Quriea.

The sides agreed at Annapolis to try to get a final peace accord by the end of this year, though Israeli officials have lately said an agreement on principles to govern a final accord is a more reasonable expectation.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad held talks in Washington with senior administration officials Monday, including a White House meeting with National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley that President Bush briefly participated in.

Fayyad, in a policy speech, accused Israel of failing to keep commitments to freeze West Bank settlement activity and ease checkpoint restrictions, and said Israel shares blame with the militant Palestinian Hamas movement for the crisis in Gaza.

Fayyad also met here with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who aides say plans to make her next trip to the Middle East in early March.

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