JERUSALEM — The Israeli government said Wednesday that it had given final approval for 1,500 new apartments in a particularly contentious Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem and moved forward with plans for a controversial park and tourism center here, prompting Palestinian accusations that it is not taking the Washington-brokered peace talks seriously.
The construction approvals were an expected attempt to appease Israeli politicians and citizens outraged over the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners who were convicted of murdering Israelis. The men were released Tuesday under the agreement that began the talks this summer.
In recent days, some right-wing lawmakers and relatives of the prisoners’ victims denounced the idea that freeing criminals was an acceptable alternative to freezing settlement construction, as the Palestinian leadership originally demanded to enter the talks.
“The attempt to link the release of the murderers to construction tenders is manipulative and morally wrong,” the Jewish Home Party, which led the opposition to the prisoner release and supports settlements, said in a statement. “It will be better if the prime minister does not release murderers and does not build. This looks like a despicable attempt to free murders and tarnish the settlement enterprise.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made no public statement about the new construction, but has previously said that Israel has the right to build anywhere in Jerusalem. He includes the neighborhoods that were seized in the 1967 war and later annexed, where the international community considers Jewish settlement illegal.
The 1,500 apartments are to be added to Ramat Shlomo, a largely religious neighborhood of 20,000 on the city’s northern edge. They were originally announced during a 2010 visit to Jerusalem by Vice President Joe Biden, causing a diplomatic crisis that dampened Israel’s relationship with the White House and Europe for months.
Israel also approved the creation of a national park on the slopes of Mount Scopus, near the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a new tourism and archaeology center just outside the Old City, both of which Palestinians say block expansion of their neighborhoods and threaten their goal of having East Jerusalem be the capital of their future state.
At the same time, plans advanced for more than 2,000 new housing units in a dozen West Bank settlements.
“Anyone who disagrees with our right to build in all parts of Jerusalem always claims that there is something problematic about the timing,” Interior Minister Gideon Saar said on Army Radio. “I believe that building and planning in Jerusalem is something that needs to be a routine, even during negotiations with the Palestinians, as it is very important for these processes to continue.”
Washington generally condemns settlement construction as an obstacle to the peace process, but Secretary of State John Kerry did not insist on a freeze on building in order to bring Israel to the table for the talks, which are entering the fourth of nine planned months.
Palestinian leaders agreed to return to negotiations without a settlement freeze like the one Netanyahu assented to in 2009-2010, but say the construction is anathema to resolving the long-running conflict.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, said Wednesday that Israel “should stop these acts to give negotiations the opportunity to succeed.”