Har Homa - Daniel Bar-On - Nov. 9, 2010
A bulldozer driving through a Har Homa construction site in Jerusalem on Nov. 9, 2010. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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Two days after United States Vice President Joe Biden downplayed differences between Israel and the U.S. as "tactical and not substantive," President Barack Obama described an announcement that Israel planned to build 1,300 housing units in East Jerusalem as not being helpful for the peace talks.

Obama, who is visiting Indonesia, was asked to comment on news that the Interior Ministry in Israel had announced plans to build in East Jerusalem. Saying that he had not been fully briefed on the matter, the U.S. president explained that activities of this type were not helpful for the peace talks and expressed concern that neither side was making the necessary effort to find a breakthrough that would create the conditions of a secure Israel living in peace with an independent Palestinian state.

Vowing to continue working toward peace, Obama described the peace process as being in the interest of the international community, of Israel and the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his visit to the U.S. with a feeling that the Americans consider the Palestinians responsible for the impasse in the talks. However, the announcement of plans for more construction in East Jerusalem reverted the attention in his direction, ahead of interviews scheduled in New York with the U.S. media, and a meeting tomorrow with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, where it is expected he will hear further criticism of the decision.

Much of Netanyahu's day was spent in meetings with senior figures in the world of finance in New York, and in interviews on leading televised economic affairs programs. This was part of a broader public relations campaign that focuses on drawing investment capital to Israel.

Later in the day, Netanyahu met with a small group of Jewish leaders and briefed them on the problems and issues Israel was facing.

European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton said in response to the news of planned construction that she was "extremely concerned by the announcement that Israel plans to go ahead with the construction of 1,300 new housing units in East Jerusalem."

"This plan contradicts the efforts by the international community to resume direct negotiations and the decision should be reversed," she said in a statement.

The announcement of planned construction also impacted on a meeting between the prime minister and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The latter expressed his concern about the construction in East Jerusalem.

Also yesterday, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called on the international community to counter Israel's latest construction plans by recognizing a Palestinian state. "Israeli unilateralism is a call for immediate international recognition of the Palestinian state," he said.

Erekat said that "just when we expected an announcement by Netanyahu on a freeze in settlement construction during his visit to Washington, he is making it clear that he is opting for settlements over peace."

The senior Palestinian official said that planned construction in the settlements, the building of separate roads for Jews and the separation fence were meant to kill any chance for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, Obama's criticism of the planned construction drew fire from some of those attending the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in New Orleans.

However, a day earlier, Obama was praised by Syrian President Bashar Assad, who met with the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, who is visiting the Syrian capital. Assad applauded Obama's commitment to peacemaking in the region and said his country wanted a "comprehensive and just peace," but blamed Israel for "rejecting peace."

Yesterday's international uproar over the announced construction in East Jerusalem and the expansion of Har Homa was only aggravated further by warrants issued by Jerusalem municipal inspectors, ordering the razing of homes in the Al-Bustan area of the Silwan neighborhood. The plan to raze 22 homes to make room for a park has been strongly condemned by Palestinians and the international community alike.

The inspectors went to the neighborhood yesterday with police escorts and handed out five warrants to residents whose homes are scheduled for demolition.

A Jerusalem municipal spokesperson said in response that "as part of the new plan for Silwan and Gan Hamelech Park, the municipality is proceeding with the implementation of the plan. The issuing of warnings is part of a promise made to the court by the municipality. The residents of Silwan will be invited for deliberations by the municipality in order to carry out the plans in their neighborhood."