JERUSALEM - On her sixth Middle East trip this year to promote peace efforts, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ratcheted up her criticism yesterday of Israeli settlement building on land Palestinians want for a future state, saying that it harmed negotiations.
The sharpening of the U.S. rhetoric on the settlements followed the latest Israeli announcement of new construction on West Bank land annexed to Jerusalem, work that Palestinian officials say undermines peace talks and prospects for a territorially viable Palestinian state.
It was unclear whether Rice's language signaled a toughening of U.S. policy toward Israeli settlement expansion that might be backed by diplomatic steps or was just a stronger reiteration of Washington's long-standing opposition to settlement building.
"I do believe, and the United States believes, that the actions and the announcements that are taking place are indeed having a negative effect on the atmosphere for negotiation, and that is not what we want," Rice said after meeting in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"We should be in a position of encouraging confidence, not undermining it," Rice said. "No party should be taking steps at this point that could prejudice the outcome of the negotiation."
Before an earlier meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Rice said she was "very concerned that at a time when we need to build confidence between the parties, the continued building and the settlement activity has the potential to harm the negotiations going forward."
Rice said later that she had raised the settlement issue in her talks with Israeli officials, and would also do so at a dinner with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Speaking to American reporters, Rice said that despite expectations that Israel would abide by U.S. demands to stop settlement building, the construction had continued.
The latest building plan pushed the number of settlement homes approved for construction since the renewal of peace talks to more than 3,000, according to published calls for bids and another government announcement.
A U.S.-backed blueprint for peace known as the "road map" stipulates that Israel must freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth of settlements.
But Olmert and other Israeli officials have argued that the new building does not prejudice peace talks because it is in Jerusalem on land Israel considers its sovereign territory, or in large West Bank settlement blocks that Israel wants to keep and which President Bush has said must be taken into account when drawing borders in a future peace agreement.
"It's clear to everyone that the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem will remain part of Israel in any possible final status agreement," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert. "Building inside those Jewish neighborhoods in no way contradicts our commitment to move forward in the peace process."
But Palestinian officials, who seek East Jerusalem as their future capital, say that Israeli construction there and in the West Bank undermines efforts to negotiate the creation of a territorially contiguous Palestinian state.
"We consider settlement to be the greatest obstacle on the path of the diplomatic process," Abbas said after his meeting with Rice. "As the ... building in the settlements increases, the more it creates an obstacle on our way to reach peace."
Rice said she expected "an intensification of our efforts" to reach a peace agreement, and a Palestinian official suggested that might include more trilateral meetings between Rice and the chief Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
Rice met yesterday with Livni, who heads the Israeli team, and Ahmad Qureia, the lead Palestinian negotiator.
She is to meet today with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to discuss further easing of Israeli movement restrictions in the West Bank and Palestinian security performance there.
Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.