Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were set Monday to hold their second meeting in Jerusalem since Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas announced a revival of peace talks at Annapolis, Maryland, last month.
Palestinian officials said the only issue on the agenda would be Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.
The first meeting twelve days ago was overshadowed by this issue, specifically an Israeli announcement to build in Har Homa a controversial Jewish neighbourhood on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem.
Israel's Housing Ministry published a tender for the construction of 307 new homes in Har Homa on December 4.
But according to its proposed budget for 2008, it plans to build more, some 500, as well as some 240 new apartment in the nearby Jewish settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim.
Israeli ministers have said that Har Homa is within Jerusalem's municipal boundary and therefore an "integral part" of the city. Israel also claims Ma'aleh Adumim as part of Jerusalem and counts it among key settlement blocs it wants to keep as part of a final peace deal with the Palestinians.
But chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat slammed the Israeli decision, saying that if Israel responds to Palestinian and international demands to halt settlement activities by allocating more funds for settlements, then "what is the use of negotiations?"
"Israel has to decide between building settlements and going on the road to peace," he said. "It cannot have both."
Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said that Israel, as part of its commitment for a settlement freeze, would not build new settlements and would not "outwardly expand" existing settlements.
But it will continue to build inside the boundaries of existing settlements that it plans to keep in the future, as well as within Jerusalem.
He said, however, that an initial plan by Housing Minister Zeev Boim to build a whole new Jewish neighbourhood in northern Jerusalem was scrapped. Boim himself gave assurances to that effect to US Ambassador in Tel Aviv Richard Jones, he said.
In the Gaza Strip meanwhile, Israeli aircraft launched an early- morning air-strike near the central town of al-Bureij, killing two Hamas militants.
A military spokesman in Tel Aviv said the strike came after militants from Gaza launched some four locally-made rockets at southern Israel Sunday.
TAGS: Middle-East Jerusalem