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World News

Israel's Olmert stands by settlement building

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Monday Israel would not stop building on occupied land in and around Jerusalem, defying U.S. criticism and sparking protests from Palestinians during renewed peace talks.

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (L) walks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel after their joint news conference at Olmert's office in Jerusalem March 17, 2008. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

The United States has called Jewish settlement building near Jerusalem unhelpful and said neither Israel nor the Palestinians were doing nearly enough to meet their obligations under a long-stalled “road map” peace plan.

“There will be places where there will be construction, or additions to construction, because these places will remain in Israel’s hands,” Olmert told a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“This includes, first and foremost, Jerusalem,” he said. “We are building in Jerusalem because everyone knows that there is no chance the state of Israel will give up neighbourhoods like Har Homa, as you know. It’s an inseparable part of Jerusalem.”

Palestinians see the building in Har Homa as the last rampart in a wall of settlements encircling Arab East Jerusalem, cutting it off from the rest of the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Olmert’s comments “cannot stand” and that the Palestinians delivered that message directly to Israel’s chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. “This is absolutely unacceptable,” Erekat said.

The road map calls on Israel to remove outposts built without government authorisation in the West Bank and to halt all settlement activity in the territory. It also demands that the Palestinians crack down on militants.

Livni spokesman Arye Mekel said she met one-on-one for two hours with her Palestinian counterpart, former Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie, but declined to comment on the discussions.

Washington has been especially critical of Israeli plans to build hundreds of new homes in Har Homa, which Palestinians refer to as Jabal Abu Ghneim.

Israel has rejected criticism of building in the area on the grounds that it annexed the land and placed it inside the Jerusalem city boundaries it drew after occupying the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war. That annexation is not recognised internationally.

In addition to Har Homa, Israel has approved plans to build within major Jewish settlement blocs like Givat Ze’ev, arguing that those areas would be part of the Jewish state under any future peace deal.

NEGOTIATIONS RESUME

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had briefly suspended the U.S.-backed talks earlier this month after an Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip killed more than 120 Palestinians. Israel said the offensive was meant to counter cross-border rocket fire by militants in the Hamas-controlled territory.

Israeli officials said Livni and Qurie held a previously undisclosed meeting about 10 days ago.

The off-again, on-again peace talks have shown little sign of progress since being launched at a peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November with the goal of trying to reach a statehood agreement before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office next January.

Livni, addressing parliament, said Israel would push forward on parallel tracks -- one aimed at reaching an agreement with Abbas; the other at fighting militants.

“Terror should not and will not be an excuse for Israel not to enter the negotiation room. I expect the Palestinians not to use any Israeli action against terror in order to stay out of this room,” Livni said.

Abbas, whose authority has been limited to the West Bank since Hamas Islamists seized the Gaza Strip in June, wants to reach a full agreement allowing him to declare statehood.

Olmert has said the goal of the peace talks was to reach an understanding on “basic principles” for a Palestinian state, with implementation only once Abbas reined in militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as called for under the 2003 road map.

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Mohammed Assadi

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