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Netanyahu Shrugs off Worldwide Criticism

by Jason Koutsoukis in Jerusalem and Anne Davies in Washington

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has brushed aside international anger over the expansion of Jewish neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem by defining the new plans as ''standard procedure''.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) listens to a navy officer during a visit to a naval vessel off the coast of the northern Israeli city of Haifa. (AFP/Pool/Pavel Wolberg) On Tuesday the Jerusalem municipality approved the construction of another 900 housing units in Gilo, which is built on land annexed by Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War and is regarded as an illegal settlement by the United Nations.

''There is nothing new in the planning procedures,'' a spokesman for Mr Netanyahu said. ''Gilo is a part of Jerusalem, just like Rehavia, Pisgat Zeev and Ramot Eshkol.''

South of Jerusalem's centre, Gilo is home to 40,000 Jewish residents and completes a ring of Jewish neighbourhoods through east Jerusalem that Palestinians say prevents the eastern side of the city from becoming a future capital of a Palestinian state.

The new construction plans raised the ire of the US, Britain and the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon.

The State Department spokesman, Ian Kelly, gave voice to US exasperation: ''We find the Jerusalem planning committee decision to move forward the approval process for the expansion of Gilo, in Jerusalem, as dismaying.''

The White House went further and reprimanded Israel on other activities. ''The US also objects to other Israeli practices in Jerusalem related to housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. Our position is clear: the status of Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the parties,'' the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said.

Diplomatic sources said Israeli officials ignored a request on Monday by President Barack Obama's envoy, George Mitchell, to halt the Gilo decision. Mr Ban also issued a tersely worded statement, deploring the Israeli Government's decision on the Gilo settlement.

''The Secretary-General reiterates his position that settlements are illegal, and calls on Israel to respect its commitments under the road map to cease all settlement activity, including natural growth,'' a statement issued by his office said, referring to the peace plan that foresees two states living side by side.

Since he was sworn into office in January, a key plank of Mr Obama's strategy to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians has been to demand that Israel cease all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Israel has repeatedly refused to consider a construction freeze of any kind in east Jerusalem, offering instead to impose a construction pause in the West Bank during the resumption of future negotiations with the Palestinians.

Despite its ostensibly tough stance, the Obama Administration has sent mixed signals.

Last month the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, praised Mr Netanyahu's offer as ''unprecedented''. But in the face of a furious response across the Arab world, and the announcement by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, that he would quit politics, Mr Obama has renewed his insistence that Israel halt all settlement construction.

In Israel's biggest selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, yesterday the columnist Shimon Shiffer wrote that the latest statement from the White House indicated that the ''Obama Administration has decided to change the rules of the game and not to behave like other US administrations in the past''.

Mr Mitchell ''has been trying for some time to persuade Israel that it is not enough to declare twice a day its desire to renew negotiations,'' the columnist wrote, adding: ''Israel, say the Americans, has to change its mode of conduct in so far as it pertains to construction in the territories.''

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