Clinton criticizes Israel over E. Jerusalem demolition

RAMALLAH, West Bank Wed Mar 4, 2009 10:04am EST

1 of 3. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) and outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert smile during a meeting in Jerusalem March 3, 2009, in this picture released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO).

Credit: Reuters/Avi Ohayon/GPO/Handout

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RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Israel Wednesday over plans to demolish Palestinian homes in Arab East Jerusalem and said Washington would engage Israeli leaders on Jewish settlements.

Calling the planned destruction of more than 80 dwellings "unhelpful," Clinton said after talks with Palestinian leaders: "It is an issue that we intend to raise with the government of Israel and the government at the municipal level in Jerusalem."

Israel says the homes slated for demolition were built without permits.

Palestinians say authorization from Israel's Jerusalem municipality is nearly impossible to obtain. They accuse Israel of trying to drive them out of East Jerusalem, territory captured in a 1967 war, to make room for Jewish families.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem its "united and eternal" capital, a claim that has not won international recognition. The Palestinian Authority wants East Jerusalem to be the capital of a Palestinian state.

At a news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank, Clinton stopped short of repeating U.S. calls for an immediate cessation of Israeli settlement expansion but promised to follow up on the issue.

"We will be looking for a way to put it on the table along with all the other issues that need to be discussed and resolved," she said.

"I think at this time, we should wait until we have a new Israeli government. That will be soon and then we will look at whatever tools are available," Clinton said repeating her support for creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

PEACE PARTNERS

Abbas said that unless Israel's incoming leaders were committed to a two-state solution and halted settlement construction and Jerusalem demolitions, "we will not consider them as peace partners."

Clinton is on her first visit to the region as secretary of state during a time of political transition in Israel, which held an election on February 10 that led to right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu being invited to form a government by April 3.

The Likud party leader's reluctance to commit himself to the creation of a Palestinian state could put him on a collision course with the Obama White House.

With Israel still in political flux and peace talks with the Palestinians stalled, Clinton used her Middle East visit to announce Tuesday a new approach to improve U.S. relations with Syria.

She said two U.S. officials would go to Damascus for preliminary discussions. Political analysts said the overture could pave the way for a resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiations and weaken Syria's ties with Iran and Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups.

In a show of support for Abbas's Palestinian Authority, Clinton called it the only legitimate government of the Palestinian people.

The Authority has held sway only in the West Bank after Hamas Islamists wrested control of the Gaza Strip from his Fatah faction in fighting in 2007.

The West shuns Hamas over its refusal to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim peace deals.

Clinton has said a durable ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, where Israel in December launched a devastating 22-day offensive, hinged on Hamas stopping cross-border rocket salvoes.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Adam Entous)

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