The United States Monday expressed strong objections to Israel's plans to build nearly 700 new housing units in East Jerusalem. Israel claims the entire city as its capital, while the United States says the status of East Jerusalem should be resolved in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The United States has responded critically and publicly to the Israeli move, which came as the Obama administration's Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell prepares for an expected January trip to the region.
The Israeli government on Monday said it had asked for bids, or tenders, for the construction of some 700 housing units in three Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War and subsequently annexed in a move that is not recognized internationally.
While Israel claims the city as its capital, Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their envisaged future state.
In a written statement, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated the U.S. stand that Jerusalem is a "permanent status" issue that must be resolved by the parties through negotiations backed by the international community.
Noting that the United States opposes the latest Israeli action, Gibbs said neither party should engage in efforts or take actions that would unilaterally pre-empt or appear to pre-empt negotiations, and that both sides should return to negotiations as soon as possible.
In a talk with reporters here, State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said U.S. envoy Mitchell was told of the Israeli building plans at a meeting with Israeli officials last week in New York. "The Israeli officials noted their plans to issue tenders in East Jerusalem. We strongly objected, noting that these kinds of announcements harm peace efforts. And we believe it is important to resume negotiations between the parties in order to resolve all permanent-status issues, including Jerusalem," he said.
U.S. officials say Mitchell plans to return to the region early in the new year to try to broker a resumption of peace negotiations.
In November, Mitchell welcomed a ten-month moratorium on new housing starts in the West Bank that was announced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mitchell called it an unprecedented gesture and said Palestinians should respond by restarting peace talks that had been idle for more than a year.
But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to enter talks unless Israel completely stops all construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Chief Palestinian negotiatior Saeb Erekat said the Ramallah-based authority condemns the latest Israeli housing move in the strongest terms and said Israel is undermining hopes for a two-state solution to the conflict.
But Israeli spokesman Mark Regev said his country never promised to halt construction in East Jerusalem and that the Palestinians' reaction to the announcement was a new hardening of their position.
In its statement on Monday, the White House said the United States recognizes the deep importance of the Jerusalem issue and believes that through good faith negotiations, the parties can agree on an outcome that realizes their mutual aspirations for Jerusalem while safeguarding its status for people around the world.