By DINA KRAFT
TEL AVIV – A top Israeli official scolded local officials on Tuesday for giving preliminary approval to a plan calling for the demolition of 22 Palestinian homes, in an echo of past stumbles over Jewish development in East Jerusalem.
The official, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, was on a visit to Washington, where tensions have run high over Jewish housing in East Jerusalem. A member of the Labor Party, the only centrist element in a right-leaning government, Mr. Barak seemed annoyed by the move, which threatened to upset the indirect, American-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
In a statement released by his office, Mr. Barak said that the municipal authorities were “not demonstrating any common sense or any sense of timing – and it is not the first time.”
The Israeli government is still repairing damage done to its relations with the United States when the Interior Ministry announced, during a visit by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in March, approval for the building of over 1,000 homes for Jews in East Jerusalem.
In Washington on Tuesday, P. J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, expressed concern that the proposed plan could compromise the new peace negotiations. “This is expressly the kind of step that we think undermines trust that is fundamental to making progress in the proximity talks,” he said.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, a move that was not recognized internationally. Palestinians predominate in the area and claim it as their future capital. They view efforts by Israel to increase the Jewish presence there as hostile acts intended to thwart any future division of the city.
Jerusalem, with its biblical resonance and deep historical roots and symbolism, remains the most volatile issue between Israel and the Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in keeping with his predecessors, has held firmly that Jerusalem will remain united as Israel’s capital.
But his office, apparently in a bid to stave off another confrontation with the White House, issued a statement playing down the plan. “We are talking about a process at its very initial stages,” the statement read. “The plan is still up for debate and comments from the city hall’s local council and then in the district committee of the Interior Ministry, where the stance of the local residents will be heard.”
The statement also expressed the desire that a solution be found that would satisfy local residents.
Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, rejected the criticism, including Mr. Barak’s comments.
The city’s plan, which he has been spearheading, is to raze 22 out of 88 homes that the city said were built illegally on public land in the neighborhood of Silwan, nestled in a valley just below the stone walls of the Old City. Once the homes are cleared in the area called Al Bustan, Mr. Barkat has said there will be room for a large archeological park, about 1,000 new apartments for local residents, shopping and boutique hotels. He sees the package as an important tourist draw that will be good both for local residents and Jerusalem.
He envisions the creation of 1,000 more apartment units through the city’s approval of four-story buildings where currently only two stories are allowed. Other plans approved in a preliminary step on Monday would legalize a seven-story apartment building in Silwan where Jewish settlers live.