US Says Israel Housing Move Unhelpful
Associated Press Writer
The Bush administration, which is sending Vice President Dick Cheney to the Middle East for talks on peace and oil prices, on Monday chided Israel for its plan to expand Jewish housing in disputed Jerusalem.
President Bush said Cheney's goal is to get Israelis and Palestinians to hold firm to the promises they've made toward peace. Visiting Israel, Arab states and Muslim ally Turkey, Cheney will "reassure people that the United States is committed to a vision of peace in the Middle East," Bush said.
At the State Department, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a point of opening a meeting with Israel's foreign minister by saying that the United States expects both Israel and the Palestinians to live up to their promises under the U.S.-backed peace push. Bush relaunched formal talks last fall in Annapolis, Md.
"U.S. policy on this is well known, and we have said that it is important to do everything possible to make the atmosphere for Annapolis as good as possible," Rice said in answer to a reporter's question.
Earlier, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack chided Israel more directly for the announcement Sunday that hundreds of new Jewish houses would be built in disputed areas of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
"The announcement that we saw from the Israeli government, is it helpful to the process? No, it's not helpful to the process," McCormack said.
Cheney departs Sunday for a trip to Oman, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank and Turkey. White House press secretary Dana Perino said oil is part of the agenda. With high energy prices socking American consumers, the administration is pushing oil producers to increase production. Saudi Arabia and the OPEC cartel rebuffed Bush's January request for more production.
In his final year in office, Bush has turned a Mideast peace deal into a signature foreign policy goal. But violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel has hampered the peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Cheney will meet with both men.
"I'm optimistic that we'll be able to achieve a vision that shows a way forward, and I'm optimistic leaders will step forward and do the hard things necessary so people don't have to live in deprivation and fear," Bush said, addressing reporters after a meeting with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Palestinians have condemned Israeli plans to build more housing in disputed east Jerusalem, an area the Palestinians hope to make the capital of a future independent state.
Bush made clear he expects Cheney to prod the leaders to stick to their obligations under the U.S.-backed road map, which calls on the Palestinians to disarm militants and for Israel to halt settlement construction. "Those obligations are clear," Bush said.
Israeli officials on Monday announced plans to build 400 new homes in disputed east Jerusalem. A day earlier, Housing Minister Zeev Boim said Israel would build 350 apartments in a West Bank settlement just outside of Jerusalem, and 750 homes in another east Jerusalem neighborhood.
To mollify the Palestinians and deflect international criticism, Olmert has ordered a partial freeze on West Bank settlement construction. But his spokesman, Mark Regev, said the order doesn't apply to east Jerusalem.
The announcement came a few days after Rice had visited Israel and the West Bank to try to keep talks going after Palestinians walked out in protest of a separate Israeli action. Palestinians had said they could not continue to talk peace in light of an especially deadly Israel's military onslaught in the Gaza Strip.
Rice's two days of intensive diplomacy resulted in a promise last week from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he would return to the peace table soon. He has not set a date for the next talks, despite urging from Rice that he do so.
McCormack said the U.S. had expressed concern to Israel about the housing announcements. He said Rice had spoken with Israel's defense chief twice in two days, but he did not provide details of the telephone conversations.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the chief negotiator for confidential talks with the Palestinians, sat silently as Rice spoke.
"We consider, as I know the Israeli government does as does the Palestinian leadership, the fulfillment of road map obligations is a part of the Annapolis process," Rice said.
Rice noted that a U.S. general will meet jointly with Israeli and Palestinian representatives later this week to review compliance with those promises. She has said she thinks both sides need to do better. The U.S. monitor's appointment and the three-way meeting were in answer to Palestinian requests.
Associated Press writer Ben Feller contributed to this report.
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