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Israel, U.S. in row over East Jerusalem building plan

11-11-2010 09:56 BJT

JERUSALEM, Nov. 10 (Xinhua) -- Israel on Tuesday rebuffed criticism by the United States and Europe that building plans for disputed Jerusalem neighborhoods might hamper efforts to reignite stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

"Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is the capital of the State of Israel," the Israeli Prime Minister's Office said in a statement, one of a flurry of words between Israel and the Obama administration over construction plans for three neighborhoods.

"Israel has never accepted upon itself restrictions of any kind on construction in Jerusalem, which has approximately 800,000 residents, including during the ten months in which construction was suspended in Judea and Samaria (the biblical term for the West Bank)," the statement read.

Earlier Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama cautioned that plans to construct upward of 1,300 new housing units are counterproductive to efforts to restart the stalled peace talks, which reached an impasse in September.

"This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations. Such incremental steps can end up breaking down trust between the parties," Obama said in a press conference held during a trip to Indonesia, adding that he was concerned both sides were not "making the kind of effort required to achieve a breakthrough" in the peace talks, which "could finally create a framework for a secure Israel living side by side in peace with a sovereign Palestine."

Top U.S. officials were reportedly outraged on Monday, when news poured in that the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee -- directly supervised by Israel's Interior Ministry -- published details of the planned sites, additions to existing neighborhoods gained after the 1967 war.

Jerusalem's status has been a core issue in all negotiations held by Israel and the Palestinian National Authority since the mid-1990s. The Palestinians claim the city's eastern side as the capital of their future state. Israel insists that those areas will remain under its sovereignty.

The announcement came shortly after Netanyahu met U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in New Orleans, where both men addressed the annual Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly.

Biden was notified of the plan as he was addressing a crowd of hundreds of Jewish leaders, reiterating America's commitment to Israel's security and the need to counter the threat posed by Iran 's nuclear ambitions.

Tuesday's exchange of contentious statements was not the first time that a diplomatic incident followed the publishing of controversial construction plans in East Jerusalem.

In March, a scandal erupted during Biden's visit to Israel, when a plan to build 1,600 new homes was announced, embarrassing both Biden and Netanyahu.

Since then, Netanyahu had reportedly imposed guidelines meant to prevent similar crises with the U.S. administration.

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