AP: Israel advances Jerusalem housing before talks

Aug. 13, 2013 @ 01:01 PM

Israel is moving forward with building nearly 900 new homes in east Jerusalem, an official said Tuesday, a decision that angered Palestinians before Mideast peace talks were to begin for the first time in years.

The Israeli announcement could affect Wednesday's talks, which come after months of mediation by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. In an initial gesture ahead of the talks, Israel was set to release 26 Palestinian prisoners, many involved in deadly attacks, late Tuesday.

The last round of substantive talks collapsed in late 2008, and negotiations have remained stalled mainly over the issue of Israeli settlement construction on territories claimed by the Palestinians for their future state. The Palestinians say the settlements, now home to more than 500,000 Israelis, is making it increasingly difficult to carve out their state and that continued Israeli construction is a sign of bad faith.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said Israel's settlement plans are a slap in the face of the Palestinians and Kerry. "It is not just deliberate sabotage of the talks, but really a destruction of the outcome," she said.

Ashrawi urged Kerry "to stand up to Israel" and deliver a tough response.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected the Palestinian claim.

"The Palestinians know that Israel rejected their demands of a settlement freeze as a precondition to these talks, they cannot say otherwise," Regev said.

There was no immediate U.S. comment. On Monday, Kerry repeated the U.S. position that the settlements are "illegitimate," while saying he didn't think the recent flap over Israeli settlements would delay talks.

"I'm sure we will work out a path forward," Kerry said.