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Israel moves to build East Jerusalem homes

Israel advanced plans Tuesday to build 1,100 homes in a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, drawing condemnations from Palestinian officials as both sides consider a proposal by international mediators to resume negotiations.

The Israeli step provoked international criticism, led by Washington, and comes at a sensitive diplomatic moment after the Palestinians applied last week for membership in the United Nations, a move Israel and the United States oppose.

The "Quartet" of Middle East mediators -- the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- has proposed steps for the resumption of talks within a month to reach an agreement by the end of next year.

The Palestinians have said they will not return to negotiations unless Israel halts construction of settlements on land they seek for a future state. They claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli Interior Ministry said the Jerusalem District Planning Committee had advanced the housing plan in the neighborhood of Gilo, which is built on West Bank land annexed to Jerusalem, making the project available for public objections for a mandatory 60-day period before a decision on final approval.

Roei Lachmanovich, a spokesman for Interior Minister Eli Yishai, said the move was purely technical and "by no means a signal" to the Palestinians. But Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the Israeli decision amounted to "1,100 noes to the resumption of peace talks."

The Quartet proposal calls on the Israelis and Palestinians "to refrain from provocative actions if negotiations are to be effective" and reiterates obligations under the 2003 blueprint for peace known as the Road Map, which calls for an Israeli settlement freeze and a cessation of violence by the Palestinians.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the Israeli move "counterproductive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties."

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration was "deeply disappointed" by Israel's announcement.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said the Israeli decision "should be reversed."

The United Nations also criticized the move. "This sends the wrong signal at this sensitive time," said Richard Miron, spokesman for the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry.

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Gilo building plan was nothing new.

"We plan in Jerusalem. We build in Jerusalem, period," Netanyahu said, "the same way Israeli governments have been doing for years."

He ruled out another Israeli settlement freeze after a 10-month moratorium on new building expired last September, leading the Palestinians to break off negotiations. "We already gave at the office," Netanyahu said.

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