Rice criticizes West Bank plans

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Wrapping up a visit to push forward Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticized Israel's continued building in West Bank settlements after plans were announced yesterday for new housing construction.

The Jerusalem municipality said it had approved plans for 600 new homes in Pisgat Zeev, a neighborhood built on West Bank land annexed to the city after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.


The ultra-Orthodox Shas party said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had promised to build 800 more homes in Betar Illit, a town of strictly Orthodox Jews near Jerusalem that is one of the fastest-growing settlements in the West Bank.

"We continue to state America's position that settlement activity should stop, that its expansion should stop - that it is indeed not consistent with road map obligations," Rice said at news conference after talks in Amman, Jordan, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.


The U.S.-backed peace plan known as the road map, the basis of the renewed negotiations, requires Israel to freeze all settlement activity and obliges the Palestinians to break up and disarm militant groups.

Disputes over continued Israeli settlement construction hampered early rounds of the talks re-launched at a U.S.-hosted conference in Annapolis in November with the aim of reaching a peace agreement by the end of this year. The Palestinians assert that continued settlement expansion undermines the negotiations and prospects for a viable Palestinian state.

Rice, who met yesterday with the Israeli and Palestinian chief negotiators, said that the talks, about which neither side has disclosed anything of substance, were making progress. The negotiation agenda includes the core issues of a final peace agreement, including the settlements, the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and borders.

"I have to say I find very impressive the work that is being done and the seriousness of this process, and I think that it's all moving in the right direction," Rice said.

She gave no specific account of what had been achieved, but expressed confidence that an agreement could be reached before President Bush leaves office in January. "I fully believe that it is a goal we can reach," she said.

Abbas said he would meet with Olmert next week, resuming periodic meetings that were interrupted a month ago after a deadly Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip in response to stepped-up rocket attacks.

In the West Bank, the Israeli army dismantled a checkpoint on a road linking Jericho and Ramallah, a day after Israel said it would remove the position and about 50 earth roadblocks hindering Palestinian travel.

At a meeting of his Kadima faction in the Israeli parliament, Olmert said that Israel had made no secret that it intends to continue building in Jewish neighborhoods in the eastern part of Jerusalem captured in 1967 and in large West Bank settlements - areas that Israel wants to keep in a future peace agreement.


"These are negotiations that are being conducted sincerely because we are not trying to hide anything," Olmert said.

The Shas party has threatened to bolt Olmert's governing coalition if he negotiates over Jerusalem, and it has pressed him to continue construction in West Bank settlements near the city that are home to large ultra-Orthodox populations. Without Shas, Olmert would lose his parliamentary majority and his government could fall.

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.