UN Chief, U.S. urge Israel to halt plans to build in W. Bank settlements
EU says 'deplores' separate Israeli plan to build 400 new homes in East J'lem; plan awaiting approval.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday urged Israel to halt plans to build hundreds of new homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Ban's spokeswoman said.
"The secretary-general calls on the government of Israel to halt settlement expansion and reiterates that the fulfillment of road map [peace plan] obligations by both parties is an important measure underpinning the political process between them," Ban's spokeswoman, Michel Montas, said in a statement.
"Any settlement expansion is contrary to Israel's obligations under the road map and to international law," Montas said.
On Sunday, the Housing Ministry said that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had approved the renewed construction an estimated 750 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Givat Ze'ev near Jerusalem.
The project approved for the Agan Ayelot neighborhood of Givat Ze'ev drew criticism from the Palestinian Authority over Israel's commitment to the peace process.
The prime minister's spokesman Mark Regev, however, said the project was in line with the state's current policy on construction in the major settlement blocs.
"The project was approved by previous governments, and Olmert approved its resumption because it meshes with government policy," he said.
The Bush administration said Monday that Israel's plan for expanded Jewish housing does not help the progress of U.S.-backed peace talks.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Monday at the State Department with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Rice told reporters U.S. policy on expansion of settlements in disputed areas is well-known, and it is important to keep the atmosphere positive.
Earlier, her spokesman had called Sunday's announcement of future settlement expansion unhelpful. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack noted that Rice had spoken to Defense Minister Ehud Barak twice in two days.
The British Foreign Office spokesperson also issued a response Monday, saying that "we are concerned by reports that Israel plans to build in the settlement of Givat Ze'ev. We have raised our concerns about these latest reports with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and stressed that we see this as unhelpful - particularly when Israelis and Palestinians should be focusing on full implementation of their obligations under phase one of the Roadmap, which include freezing all settlement activity, including natural growth."
"As the Foreign Secretary David Miliband has recently stated, the U.K. believes that all Israeli settlements anywhere in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are illegal under international law. We believe they are a serious impediment to a negotiated two-state solution."
Also Monday, the European Union condemned separate Israeli plans to build 400 new homes in disputed East Jerusalem saying the move could threaten peace efforts already burdened by a recent spike in violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
Javier Solana, the EU's foreign and security affairs chief, said the bloc remained committed to supporting the peace process despite recent violence casting a shadow over the peace effort launched in November at a U.S.-hosted summit in Annapolis, Maryland. That plan foresees a final accord by the end of 2008.
The recent fighting began with increased Palestinian rocket fire on targets in southern Israel, which triggered Israel Defense Forces raids in Gaza that killed at least 120 people. Last week, an Israeli Arab gunman shot and killed eight students at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem.
The position of the European Union is to continue to do the utmost to move the peace process forward, Solana said after discussing the Middle East with the EU foreign ministers.
But he said "we deplore Israel's announcement of the construction of new homes in East Jerusalem. That may put in jeopardy the peace process."
Solana said the settlement issue is part of the first phase of the roadmap peace plan. "We do not like to see the extension of the settlements," he said.
Olmert has ordered a partial freeze on West Bank settlement construction. Israeli officials say the order does not apply to east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Earlier Monday, a spokeswoman for the Jerusalem municipality announced the plan to build 400 new homes in the eastern part of the city.
"The plan has been completed and is waiting the final approval of a regional planning committee before construction can begin in the neighborhood of Neve Yaakov," said Ariela Smilinski Deri, a spokeswoman for the Jerusalem municipality. She did not know when construction might begin.
Neve Yaakov is located on the northern end of Jerusalem, whose municipal borders were expanded after Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed the area.
Separately Monday, European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering called for an immediate halt to violence, saying, "I condemn the violence by Hamas and other Palestinian extremists, and I call on government of Israel to listen to those voices calling for peace rhetoric to be replaced by peace acts and peace deeds."
Given the dire conditions in the Gaza Strip and last week's attack on a yeshiva in Jerusalem, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner suggested the Quartet of peace mediators - the U.S., the EU, Russia and the United Nations ? meet soon to assess the chances for peace between Israel and the Palestinians after the recent spike in violence.
She gave no date for a meeting of the Quartet, nor did the EU foreign ministers take up her proposal. The EU leaders open two days of talks in Brussels on Thursday and may visit that issue.
Ferrero-Waldner said a Quartet meeting should assess how the negotiations are going and "what we can do to enhance conditions for a peace agreement by year's end."
Several EU foreign ministers dismissed any possibility of the EU agreeing to bring Hamas into the process. The Islamic militant group seized control of the Gaza Strip last year, leaving the Palestinians split between rival leaderships.
Israel has pursued peace efforts with the moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who governs from the West Bank. The EU and the United States have also sought to bolster Abbas while shunning Hamas, which they consider a terrorist organization.
"It is very important to stick to the position that we should work with all those who want peaceful processes and peaceful outcomes in the Middle East," said British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. "Only a political solution ... can bring security to Israelis and an end to the hardships faced by Palestinians."