Jerusalem construction clouds peace talks

Israel dismisses PA protests over gov't building plans; Abbas, Olmert to meet before Washington trip.

olmert abbas walk 224 (photo credit: GPO [file])
olmert abbas walk 224
(photo credit: GPO [file])
On the eve of another meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel on Sunday dismissed as public posturing PA protests of the government's announcements of plans to build nearly 900 housing units in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Har Homa and Pisgat Ze'ev. "There is no contradiction whatsoever between this building and moving forward on the peace process," Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said. "Israel never committed itself to a freeze in Jerusalem. On the contrary, we always said that a construction freeze in Jerusalem was unrealistic and impossible. Jerusalem has a dynamic population with growing needs." Regev said there was an "international consensus" that in any final status arrangement, the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem would remain part of Israel, and building in those neighborhoods in no way undermined the peace process. Construction and Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim announced Sunday the issuance of public tenders to build 763 units in Pisgat Ze'ev and 121 in Har Homa. Saying that he doubted the issue would take up much time in the Olmert-Abbas talks, Regev said, "There is no doubt that the Palestinians understand this issue more than their public pronouncements would lead one to believe." The PA statement issued regarding the construction plans was strident. Put out by a spokesman for Abbas, it said the Israeli decision "violates the Forth Geneva Convention, UN resolutions, the Oslo Accord, the Annapolis conference and Israel's commitments in the first article of the road map." The statement termed the decision "dangerous," and said it undermined the peace process and current negotiations, and proved that "Israel's government is not interested in international legitimacy." The Olmert-Abbas meeting will take place hours before Olmert is scheduled to fly to the US for a three-day visit that will include a meeting with US President George W. Bush and a speech to the annual AIPAC policy conference. The last time Abbas and Olmert met was three weeks ago, before Bush's visit to the region. Officials in the Prime Minister's office said Olmert's meeting with Bush would deal with the major issues on the agenda: the negotiations with the Palestinians, Iran, Lebanon and Syria. This will be the first meeting since the announcement last month of indirect talks between Syria and Israel. The talks will also likely address the situation in the Gaza Strip, although Israel postponed a decision on whether to accept an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire deal at least until next week, after Olmert comes back from the US. Only then will the security cabinet, which needs to approve any agreement, be convened. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office denied allegations that the delay was due to political factors, and that Olmert, Defense Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Livni could not agree on the matter because of their recently revealed political divisions. Rather, the officials said, Israel was waiting for additional clarifications from the Egyptians. Livni, meanwhile, said at a conference at the Hebrew University marking the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, that the current negotiations with the Palestinians were an effort to define what exactly the slogan "two states living side-by-side in peace and security" actually meant. She said that in the talks between her and chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei, the talks between Olmert and Abbas, and the discussions by the technical teams, the two sides were trying to spell out exactly what a Palestinian state would look like, and what "security" would mean. Israel, she said, could not just sign an agreement with the Palestinians "and throw away the key." Rather, she said, it was essential to know what would be on the other side, what kind of government would be in place, and what kind of assurances of demilitarization would be given. Livni said one of the principles of the negotiations was that one item could not be removed from the negotiations and isolated, but rather that all the issues were connected. She made no mention of negotiations on Jerusalem, which Olmert has said repeatedly must be left to the end. "I can reach a point where we agree on borders only if I know what is happening on the other side [regarding security]," she said. Former US senator George Mitchell, who successfully negotiated the peace agreement in Northern Ireland and also chaired a commission that in 2001 issued a report on the origins of the second intifada, said at the same session with Livni that the peace agreement in Northern Ireland gave him hope that such an agreement could be signed in Israel as well. Mitchell said that the "troubles" in Northern Ireland came to an end more than 800 years after Britain began its domination there, "86 years after partition, 38 years after the British army entered, 11 years after peace talks began and nine years after an agreement was reached. "From my experiences in Northern Ireland," he said, "I hold the unshakable conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. Conflicts are created and conducted by human being; they can be ended by human beings."