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Israeli-Palestinian Talks Sour over Settlements


In Jerusalem today, the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president sat down for talks. It was the first face-to-face meeting in nearly two months for Ehud Barak and Mahmoud Abbas. The peace talks that were re-launched last November have made little headway. Palestinians complained of one key obstacle: Israel continues to build settlements in the occupied West Bank. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: It was the first face-to-face meeting in nearly two months for Ehud OLMERT and Mahmoud Abbas.]

NPR's Ivan Watson reports on an issue that has dogged the negotiations for years.


IVAN WATSON: It's afternoon in the Jewish settlement of Pisgat Ze'ev where Israeli children wait to be picked up by their parents after finishing up another day at school.

(Soundbite of shouting)

WATSON: Pisgat Ze'ev is built on a hill in a part of east Jerusalem seized by Israeli forces during the 1967 war. This tidy residential neighborhood overlooks a Palestinian community, which is separated from the rest of Jerusalem by a wall of concrete and barbed wire. Last week, the municipality of Jerusalem announced plans to construct 600 new homes in Pisgat Ze'ev. On the same day, an ultra-orthodox Israeli political party announced that the Israeli government had also approved plans for a larger project - to build 800 new housing units in Betar Illit, a large Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. These announcements came less than 24 hours after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrapped up the latest round of peace talks in Jerusalem.

Rice reacted to the news by repeating Washington's position. She said, quote, "settlement activity should stop, expansion should stop."

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev appears to be in agreement.


Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Israeli Government): The Israeli government has a very serious attitude towards these settlements. One, no new settlements, two, there's no policy to outwardly expand existing settlements.

WATSON: But when asked about the 1,400 new homes the Israeli government plans to build in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, Regev had this explanation.

Mr. REGEV: A city like Jerusalem which is a growing city, a vibrant city, a city which has growing needs, it's illogical, it's irrational to think somehow you can just cut that off, the same goes for those large communities, which everyone understands will be part of Israel in final status. Israel is willing to go a long way, but we can't be expected to do the impossible.

Ms. HAGIT OFRAN (Member, Peace Now): This is an old trick of Israel to say that it's natural growth.

WATSON: Hagit Ofran is a member of the Israeli watchdog organization Peace Now, which monitors the construction of Jewish settlements. Since the Annapolis peace talks last November, Ofran says the Israeli government has allowed the construction of an estimated 2,000 new homes in the occupied West Bank.

Ms. OFRAN: After Annapolis, after the promise by the government of Israel to stop settlement activity, we found that all settlement activity is still going on in terms of construction that started beforehand, in terms of new construction and in terms of new tenders for construction in East Jerusalem, for instance.

WATSON: On the grounds of his palatial home overlooking the West Bank city of Nablus, Palestinian businessman and philanthropist Munib al-Masri points to the Jewish settlements and settlement outposts that have sprung up on nearby hilltops.

Mr. MUNIB AL-MASRI (Businessman, Philanthropist): You see them all around. All the settlements on top of the hill, there are Israeli colonies, as I like to call them settlements. They are colonies, really, because you see them all around the hills here, and they are there to antagonize the people...

WATSON: The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz has also been critical. In a recent editorial, the paper blasted the latest settlement plans, accusing Israel of deceiving America and itself.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.