Israel's previous government built or issued bids for some 9,000 homes for Israelis in Jerusalem and the West Bank, despite its promise to pursue a peace deal with the Palestinians, settlement monitors said Monday, summarizing Ehud Olmert's three years as prime minister.
The Israeli watchdog groups Peace Now and Ir Amim urged President Barack Obama to step in quickly and pressure Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to halt further settlement expansion, particularly in the areas of Jerusalem the Palestinians want for their future capital.
"The more time the international community and the Obama administration will require to generate a political process, the more adamant they need to be to save Israel from itself, because we are losing the two-state solution," said Daniel Seidemann of Ir Amim, a group that promotes coexistence in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu supports continued construction in settlements, opposes a division of Jerusalem and has not accepted the notion of a Palestinian state. His positions could lead to growing friction with the international community, though he has said he is reviewing policy.
Abbas calls for freeze
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas insisted Monday that a settlement freeze is a prerequisite for resuming peace talks with Israel. Abbas' year of negotiations with Olmert ended inconclusively.
Abbas also rejected Israeli demands that Palestinians not only recognize the state of Israel — as Abbas and others have — but recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
"Name yourself, it's not my business," he said. "All I know is that there is the state of Israel, in the borders of 1967, not one centimeter more, not one centimeter less. Anything else, I don't accept."
Abbas' comments drew an angry response from Israel. "This is more evidence that the Palestinians are not interested in true peace with Israel," said Ofir Akonis, a lawmaker in Netanyahu's Likud Party.
Since capturing the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast War, Israel has built homes for about 470,000 Israelis there, including some 190,000 who moved to east Jerusalem.
From January 2006 to January 2009, roughly the period of the Olmert government, Israel built some 5,100 homes in West Bank settlements and issued bids for another 500 housing units there, said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now. Another 560 structures, including stone houses and mobile homes, were erected in dozens of unauthorized settlement outposts, Ofran said.
In the Palestinian-claimed areas of Jerusalem, the Olmert government issued bids for 2,400 homes for Israelis, she said. About one-third of the city's 750,000 residents are Palestinians.
New projects under construction
In the latest project for Israelis, construction has begun on 62 apartments, in three buildings of up to eight stories, in the Palestinian neighborhood of Zawahra in east Jerusalem, Seidemann said Monday.
Jerusalem municipal officials declined to comment.
Palestinians complain that Israeli housing policies are discriminatory, making it difficult for them to obtain building permits.
Also Monday, U.S. consular officials toured the West Bank area just east of Jerusalem, where one of Israel's largest settlements, Maaleh Adumim, is located.
Previous Israeli governments prepared plans for another settlement, known as E-1, across a major highway from Maaleh Adumim. However, the project was blocked by the Bush administration because it would effectively cut off a future Palestinian capital in Jerusalem from the West Bank.