Israel's Interior Ministry has given final approval for a plan to build 1,600 new homes for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and said it expects to approve the construction of another 2,700 houses in the city.
The ministry's spokesman said Thursday the housing plans are not politically based, but rather a reaction to recent protests about the high cost of living and calls for more affordable housing in Israel.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat strongly condemned the planned construction. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state and have refused to resume peace talks unless Israel stops building in the city and in the West Bank. They also called on the United States to reconsider its opposition to a Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations.
In Washington Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney urged Israel and Palestinians not to take any action that would make it harder for the two sides to come together and negotiate. When asked whether Israel's official go-ahead for the settlement project would make it harder for the United States to convince the Palestinians not to seek statehood at the U.N., Carney said "our position on that issue has not changed."
A U.N. coordinator for Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, expressed alarm at the Israeli announcement and said he would engage with the Quartet of Mideast peace mediators on the issue.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is lobbying U.N. members to grant statehood based on the entire West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, areas that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters..