JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli officials pushed forward Monday with plans to build new apartments in an east Jerusalem settlement after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his blessing last week and came under criticism from the United States.
The announcement by Jerusalem's Planning and Building Committee to approve construction of 500 housing units in Ramat Shlomo is the first step in a long series of approvals needed before actual construction can begin and the process should take years.
Still, it quickly further upset Washington, which has condemned the plans amid rising tensions in the city.
"It is unfortunate that after the unequivocal and unanimous position last week of the international community opposing construction in Jerusalem at this sensitive time, authorities chose to move forward," said Edgar Vasquez, a spokesman for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the U.S. State Department. "We continue to engage at the highest levels with the Israeli government to make our position absolutely clear that we view settlement activity as illegitimate and unequivocally oppose unilateral steps that prejudge the future of Jerusalem."
East Jerusalem is home to the city's most sensitive Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites. Israel says the whole city will forever be its capital, citing historical, religious and security reasons. The international community, including the United States, does not recognize Israel's annexation of the eastern sector of Jerusalem.
The Palestinians seek that part as their future capital and oppose any Israeli construction there. Palestinian protesters have been clashing regularly with Israeli security forces in east Jerusalem for months, and violence has particularly risen in recent days at a key Jerusalem holy site.
Netanyahu defended the stance saying there was a wide consensus in Israel to continue building throughout the city, just as every Israeli government has done since Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967. He insists that the planned building will take place in areas that all sides agree will remain part of Israel under any future peace accord.
Netanyahu has been under heavy pressure from the U.S. and other Western allies not to expand settlement construction, and his latest pledge appeared to be aimed in part at appeasing hawkish coalition partners at a time when his government is under internal duress.
Hagit Ofran of the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said Monday's announcement was the initial implementation of Netanyahu's endorsement and that other steps were needed for it to actually take off. She said the significance was mostly further evidence of Netanyahu's policy "to keep building settlements instead of building peace."
Following Netanyahu's endorsement, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S was "deeply concerned" and reiterated its strong opposition to settlement activity.
The rebuke came amid concerns of a growing crisis in relations between the two close allies. Later that week, unidentified U.S. officials lambasted the Israeli premier in an interview with The Atlantic for his settlement policies and for undermining American peace efforts. The officials derided Netanyahu as cowardly and recalcitrant, among other insults.