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The Sydney Morning Herald

Netanyahu Shrugs off Worldwide Criticism

Jason Koutsoukis in Jerusalem and Anne Davies in Washington

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)

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''.

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.''

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.

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

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

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

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

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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