18 Nov 2009
The White House has said it is dismayed by Israel's decision to build new settler homes in Jerusalem saying it makes it harder to kick-start the peace talks.
Israel has angered its US allies by approving the construction of 900 more homes in a settlement in East Jerusalem, even as President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed for a peace summit.
"We are dismayed at the Jerusalem planning committee's decision to move forward on the approval process for the expansion of Gilo in Jerusalem," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.
Israel approves 900 settler homes "At a time when we are working to relaunch negotiations, these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed."
The move, despite demands for a freeze by the Palestinians, also undermined Nicolas Sarkozy, just as the French president arrived in Saudi Arabia to push for a Middle East peace conference.
It lessens still further the chance of any meaningful negotiations between the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Mahmoud Abbas, the beleaguered president of the Palestinian Authority.
Mr Abbas, under pressure from his own Fatah party as well as the militant group Hamas, which has control over the Gaza strip, has said he will not agree to talks until there is a freeze on settlement building.
The interior ministry confirmed the new construction, amid reports that Mr Netanyahu had turned down a direct request from Washington's envoy, George Mitchell, to halt the programme.
The Israelis claim that the settlement, Gilo, is now part of Jerusalem, which it has always said would not be included in any freeze that might be agreed to facilitate talks.
Gilo already houses 40,000 Israelis.
Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas came close to a Washington-brokered deal for talks earlier this year, but Mr Netanyahu insisted on going ahead with building projects already planned in existing settlements.
Mr Sarkozy, in advance of his trip to Saudi Arabia, said deadlock in the peace process played into the hands of extremists.
"The priority is to restart as soon as possible the peace process," he said in an interview with the Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh. "It is urgent because the current deadlock plays into the hands of extremists and each day the chance of peace is slipping away a little."
The French president has been conducting a high-profile series of meetings with Middle Eastern leaders in the last week, hoping to promote his own political standing as American attempts to push-start talks falter.
President Barack Obama's credibility in Arab states has been seriously affected by his inability to force Mr Netanyahu to back down on the settlements issue.
Mr Sarkozy's visit to King Abdullah's private farm outside Riyadh was described as a chance to build their personal relations. But Saudi Arabia is seen as an increasingly important force as a backer of Mr Abbas, and has also recently forged a reconciliation with Syria, which supports Hamas.
Mr Sarkozy is also likely to press French business interests, including the sale of advanced weaponry and nuclear power technology.