Israeli Settlement Plans Imperil Talks

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Peter Dejong / AP

Workers work at a construction site of new housing units in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Givat Zeev near Jerusalem

In a move that is likely to bog down upcoming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert signed off on plans to build more than 1,000 homes inside disputed West Bank territory and in East Jerusalem.

The Israeli cabinet claimed that the construction had been planned for several years and therefore did not violate the tenets of 2003 U.S.-sponsored initiative, known as the 'Road Map', in which Israel agreed to freeze construction of new Jewish settlements. "This decision pre-dates the government," said Mark Regev, the prime minister's spokesman. But a chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Olmert's decision would undermine Washington's efforts to put the derailed negotiations back on track: "It seems to me the Israelis are determined to put a stick in the wheel of negotiations."

A new U.S. envoy, Lt. Gen. William Fraser, arrives on Thursday in a bid to revive the "road map" peace plan, a cornerstone of which is a freeze on new Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. Olmert's move is bound to complicate Fraser's task. The White House's new envoy may be a military man, but his past experience is no preparation for the political minefield he is stepping into.

The Israeli decision comes just days after a Palestinian gunman killed eight male students and wounded eight others last Thursday at a seminary closely linked with the Jewish settler's movement. The government's announcement is seen as an attempt by Olmert to pacify the pro-settlement, rightwing politicians within his fragile coalition. Israel Radio reported that Olmert approved the settlement construction in the face of threats from the ultra-orthodox Shas party to pull down his government. Work will now restart on settlements in Givat Zeev, an ultra-orthodox enclave in the West Bank, and in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev.

Meanwhile, Israel police moved swiftly over the weekend to calm down the settlers' rage after the seminary killings. Police stopped three right-wing activists from trying to tear down the mourning tent outside the house of gunman Ala Abu Dhaim in the Arab village of Jebel Mukabir.

Much of the settlers' fury was directed at Olmert and his cabinet for even agreeing to join in peace talks with the Palestinians. Olmert was warned off from visiting the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, where the shootings occurred, and his leftist education minister Yuli Tamir, who went to pay her respects, was chased away with shouts of "traitor and murderer". Rabbi Yaacov Shapira, head of the seminary, made a speech on Sunday urging Israel not to give away "one clod of soil" to the Palestinians. The scene is hardly set for compromise.