Yishai: Sorry for Distress Over East Jerusalem Plan

Israel plans to build 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem; U.S., UN condemn move.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai apologized on Wednesday for causing domestic and international distress as a result of Israel's recent decision to approve 1,600 more homes in East Jerusalem.

Yishai was responding to the recent wave of condemnations, particularly on the part of the United States and visiting Vice President Joe Biden, surrounding the recent plan to build 1,600 more housing units in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

The Interior Minister said that he was uninformed of the district committee's plan, because the matter was simply a routine, technical authorization.

"The district committees approve plans weekly without informing me," Yishai told Israel Radio. He further said that the committee could not have predicted that the approval would spur such a political storm.

"A few days ago, hundreds of new housing units were approved in Beitar Illit, which is much more problematic," said Yishai. "So if the committee members saw that those houses were approved without a problem, they didn't think a technical authorization in Jerusalem, which isn't part of the settlement freeze, would require the minister's knowledge."

Yishai emphasized that even though he doesn't see a problem with the actual authorization of the East Jerusalem homes, if he knew about it, he would have delayed the move by a few weeks.

"If I'd have known, I would have postponed the authorization by a week or two since we had no intention of provoking anyone," Yishai said. "It is definitely unpleasant that this happened during Biden's visit. If the committee members would have known that the approval would have escalated to such a situation, they would have informed me," Yishai emphasized.

"I apologize for the distress this matter caused," he added.

On Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned Israel's plan to build 1,600 in East Jerusalem, echoing comments made earlier by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

"The secretary-general condemns the approval of plans for the building of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem by the Israeli Ministry of Interior earlier today," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said in a statement.

"[Ban] reiterates that settlements are illegal under international law," he said. "Furthermore, he underscores that settlement activity is contrary to Israel's obligations under the Roadmap, and undermines any movement towards a viable peace process."

The announcement also drew condemnation from European Union's foreign-policy director, Catherine Ashton, who on Wednesday said, "May I join Vice-President Biden in condemning the decision to build 1,600 new houses."

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to alleviate new tensions with the United States, after the announcement that Israel will build 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem drew strong condemnation from the White House, and visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

The prime minister reportedly promised Biden "No one was seeking to embarrass you or undermine your visit - on the contrary, you are a true friend to Israel."

Biden arrived in Israel on Monday in an attempt to kick-start long-stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which had been expected to resume in the coming days, but looked in danger Tuesday after a furious response from the Palestinians to the construction plan.

Netanyahu told Biden during their meeting in Jerusalem earlier in the day that he had had no prior knowledge of the decision to authorize the additional construction, and added that the program had been drafted three years ago and only received initial authorization that day. It could take several months, Netanyahu assured him, before the program is granted final approval.

Netanyahu told his guest that the regional councils are not under the political leadership's direct authority, and that his administration tries not to interfere with their work.

A high-ranking official in Jerusalem, however, said Netanyahu has "no problem" with construction in Jerusalem and has no intention of apologizing for building there. The official acknowledged, however, that the announcement's timing was harmful to Israel's diplomatic interests.

"We didn't want to humiliate Biden or sow division while he is in Israel," the official said.

Israel's Interior Ministry announced that approval had been granted to build new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox community of 20,000 north of downtown Jerusalem, which borders the Palestinian village of Shuafat.

The program, authorized by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, is one of the largest construction projects Israel has launched in Jerusalem in recent years. The development would spread over an area of 580 dunams (approximately 145 acres) and include a new road leading to the neighborhood, public facilities and a park. The ministry said the plan is intended to ease the ultra-Orthodox community's housing shortage, and 30 percent of the units will be relatively small and inexpensive, aimed at young couples.

Interior Ministry officials rejected claims that the plan's authorization was intended to scuttle efforts to renew proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, or to otherwise compromise Biden's visit.

Jerusalem city council member Meir Margalit (Meretz) said of the plan, "The timing is not coincidental - it is a response from Eli Yishai to Netanyahu's declaration of renewed talks with the Palestinian Authority." Yishai, the interior minister and deputy prime minister, is chair of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

"The fact that Yishai can't wait a few more days until Biden leaves the country proves his goal was to give the American administration a slap in the face," Margalit said.

Ramallah sees provocation

The Palestinian Authority issued a strong rebuke of the Israeli announcement, with Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, warning the move would derail negotiations before they had even begun.

"It is apparent that the Israeli government does not want negotiations, nor does it want peace," Abu Rudeineh said, according to the Ma'an news agency. "The American administration must respond to this provocation with effective measures."

Abbas contacted Arab League chief Amr Moussa by phone and urged him to speak with the heads of Arab states over forming a concerted response to the building program.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee, told Haaretz that Israel's declaration shows "the Israeli government does not want peace, it does not want a solution ? There is no clearer message; there is a no more provocative measure."

Biden will meet with Abbas in Ramallah on Wednesday, and U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell is expected to arrive in the region next week to conduct the second round of proximity talks between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

The U.S. administration hopes it can return to direct discussions between junior-level Israeli and Palestinian officials within a few weeks.

The talks are expected to deal with all of the so-called core issues: borders, water refugees, security arrangements, settlements and the status of Jerusalem. Although the Arab League had set aside four months to allow the talks to progress, Mitchell said his administration is not operating according to a certain fixed date, and that negotiations will proceed as long as necessary.

Still, Mitchell said, he hopes Israel will take steps to build goodwill towards the Palestinians in an effort to push to direct talks. Possible gestures include the release of prisoners, removing certain West Bank checkpoints, easing the blockade of the Gaza Strip, reducing Israel's military presence in Palestinian cities and transferring certain areas of the West Bank to Palestinian security control.

"I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units," Biden said in a written statement. "The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now."

Moments earlier, U.S. President Barack Obama's top spokesman, Robert Gibbs, condemned Jerusalem's announcement from the White House.

Netanyahu and Biden also discussed the Iranian nuclear threat, and both leaders agreed on the need to pursue further sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

A senior U.S. official said both Washington and Jerusalem "are working on the assumption that we will reach a fourth round of sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council by late March or early April."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday that he hopes indirect talks quickly lead to more comprehensive negotiations that could produce a final-status agreement. Tuesday's announcement, he said, does not represent a new development.

"This is an ultra-Orthodox city very close to the Green Line, and these are housing units for people who are struggling and cannot buy elsewhere," he said.