Friday, December 28, 2007

Pressured by US, Egypt and Palestinians, Olmert wavers on Har Homa

Israel Insider staff
December 27, 2007

As far as the Palestinians are concerned, there's only one item on the agenda for Thursday's planned summit meeting: pressuring Israel to stop building homes in its capital city. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas said he would demand a clear commitment for a freeze on all Israeli settlement construction when he meets with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and said he would beseech US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to apply pressure, an aide to the West Bank chieftain said Wednesday.

Last month Israel announced tenders for 307 new apartments in Har Homa, one of the Jewish neighborhoods around east Jerusalem where about 180,000 Israelis live. Palestinians are demanding that Israel halt the project, even though the homes are going up within the capital's municipal boundaries.

Abu Rdeneh said joint committees would begin discussing the main issues, "but there is a need to freeze the settlement activities in order to create the appropriate atmosphere to bring progress in the peace process." He said Abbas will ask Olmert for "a clear cessation of settlement activities."

Remarkably, Olmert appears willing to discuss the issue with Abbas, saying that he is sensitive to Palestinian concerns. Olmert said that he believed it would be possible to reach a final status accord in 2008. He added that Israel was being "very careful" with regards to new construction in existing settlement blocs.

He also hinted that he supported a new Israeli bill in the Knesset that would compensate residents of Judea and Samaria who were willing to evacuate their homes voluntarily. Surveys have shown that only a tiny minority of settlers were willing to be "bought off."

Barak gets a tongue-lashing by Mubarak
In meetings with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak lashed out at Israel for continued construction in east Jerusalem, saying that building homes for Jewish people damages the peace process.

Mubarak echoed Palestinian demands that Israel cancel a project to build 307 homes in Har Homa neighborhood announced earlier this month, according to presidential spokesman Suleiman Awwad.

"This settlement activity will hijack the only outcome of the Annapolis conference, which was the re-launching of peace negotiations," he told reporters following the meeting.

"The failure of two rounds of negotiations between the Israeli and the Palestinian sides this month is due to the Israeli settlement activity," he said. Awwad added that the meeting also concerned bilateral relations and border issues - a sensitive issue as Israe accuses Egypt of doing next to nothing to stop weapons smuggling.

Barak denies that Jerusalem building is an issue
In a press conference after meeting Mubarak, Barak said that the Har Homa building project should not be a point of contention with the Palestinians since it was taking place in Jerusalem, rather than the West Bank where Israel had promised to freeze new construction.

"In our view, this is not part of the problem with the Palestinians, we are building in the neighborhoods inside Jerusalem, we are not building new settlements," he said. "The Palestinians are far from implementing phase one of the road map, which calls for rooting out the terror infrastructure," he added.

The Palestinians, Barak neglected to mention, have a very different view.

Barak also met with Omar Suleiman, chief of Egyptian intelligence and Egypt's primary liason with the Palestinians. Israeli army radio reported after the talks that Suleiman promised Egypt would do its utmost to halt smuggling of weapons across its border into Gaza.

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