Israel Set to Build 4,300 New Apartments in East Jerusalem

By AMY TEIBEL | August 11, 2011 | 4:15 AM EDT

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's interior minister gave final authorization to build 1,600 apartments in disputed east Jerusalem and will approve 2,700 more in days, officials said Thursday, detailing a plan that could complicate diplomatic efforts to dissuade Palestinians from declaring statehood at the United Nations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office knew the construction plans were moving ahead, Interior Ministry spokesman Roi Lachmanovich said. An earlier approval for the 1,600-apartment project badly embarrassed Netanyahu and caused a diplomatic rift with the U.S. because it coincided with a visit to Israel by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

Palestinians oppose all Israeli construction in east Jerusalem because it chips away at their hopes to establish the capital of a future state in the holy city. The approval for the new apartments also could create new problems for Washington, which is trying to persuade the Palestinians to abandon their statehood bid and enter into negotiations with Israel instead.

Frustrated by a nearly three-year impasse in talks with Israel, the Palestinians said they will turn to the U.N. in hopes of receiving even a symbolic endorsement for statehood by the U.N. General Assembly.

On Tuesday, Washington rebuked Israel for advancing separate plans to build 930 apartments in another neighborhood of east Jerusalem.

Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev had no immediate comment on the latest project's final approval.

Lachmanovich said the new apartments were necessary to address a housing shortage in the city.

"There's always something pending," he said, when asked about the timing of the approvals.

Actual construction likely will not begin for years because building plans will have to go through multiple approval processes.

Negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis have ground to a halt, with each side accusing the other of violating existing agreements and not acting in good faith.

The Palestinians refuse to negotiate with the Netanyahu government as long as it continues to build in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — territories that would form the core of their future independent state.

Israel rejects that demand, arguing that previous rounds of talks moved ahead in tandem with settlement construction.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem in 1967 after capturing it from Jordan and does not consider the Jewish neighborhoods it has built there to be settlements.

The international community, however, does not recognize the annexation, and regards the Jewish construction there to be no different from the Jewish construction in West Bank settlements.

Since 1967, 500,000 Jews have made their homes in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.