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U.N. blasts Israel for West Bank housing expansion plan

  • Story Highlights
  • On Sunday, Israel gave final approval to increase Gival Zeev settlement by 330 units
  • On Monday, U.N. called "on the government of Israel to halt settlement expansion"
  • President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noncommittal on plan
  • State Department spokesman: Israel's action "not helpful" to peace process
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UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon criticized Israel on Monday for planning to build housing units in a West Bank settlement, saying the decision conflicts with "Israel's obligation under the road map" for Middle East peace.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: The plan conflicts with an "obligation under the road map" for peace.

Israel's settlement activities have long been a major bone of contention in efforts to bring peace to the region. In December, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered his government not to start any new construction projects in the West Bank without his approval.

That announcement came after Palestinian officials expressed outrage that Israel's proposed funding for 2008 included construction plans in Ma'aleh Adumim, which is part of the West Bank, and Har Homa, in a disputed area that Israel considers part of Jerusalem.

Ban expressed concern over Israel's decision to resume construction, a U.N. statement attributed to Ban's spokesman said.

"Any settlement expansion is contrary to Israel's obligations under the road map and to international law. The secretary-general calls on the government of Israel to halt settlement expansion and reiterates that the fulfillment of road map obligations by both parties is an important measure underpinning the political process between them."

President Bush said the obligations of both sides under the road map "are clear," but he didn't criticize Israel's announcement.

"It's important to do everything possible" to advance peace efforts, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, though she didn't comment directly on Israel's announcement.

The latest dispute comes just days after Rice wrapped up a trip to the region to restart peace talks. It was part of major push by Bush to secure a Middle East peace deal before he leaves office in January.

Specific settlement activities at issue are "a little bit more complicated than just black and white," a White House spokeswoman said.

A State Department spokesman said Israel's announcement is "not helpful to the process" of achieving peace.

Israel said the decision to increase the Gival Zeev settlement by 330 housing units was made nine years ago. On Sunday, Olmert gave final approval "for economic reasons that have to do with the developers," his spokesman, Mark Regev, told CNN.

The road map for Middle East peace is backed by the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the European Union. Israel has frequently argued that Palestinians are not fulfilling their obligations, which include halting terrorist attacks.

Last week, eight people were killed in a shooting at an Israeli seminary. And southern Israeli towns near the Gaza border have faced a near daily stream of rocket attacks from Palestinians in Gaza for months. Israel launched operations in Gaza in response. Violence between the two sides has decreased in the past few days.

Palestinians "condemn" Israel's decision to expand the Gival Zeev settlement, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat has said. "It is like putting a stick in the wheels of the peace process."

Asked by the media about the settlement issue Monday, Bush said his administration expects both sides "to adhere to their obligations in the road map. And those obligations are clear."

He didn't specifically weigh in on the planned settlement expansion.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush "believes that this settlement issue is one of the things that's a sticking point to getting to the next step in the negotiations."

Asked whether Israel's announcement is OK under the road map, Perino replied, "I think that there's some that have been -- that were announced before. There are some that are currently under construction, others that were going to be under construction, but the construction's never started.

"So I think it's a little bit more complicated than just black and white, because I think there's a lot of different factors that go into the different settlements that they're talking about."

Appearing with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Rice responded to questions Monday about Israel's settlement announcement.

"We have said that it's important to do everything possible to make the atmosphere for Annapolis as good as possible," Rice said, referring to a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian leaders in December in Annapolis, Maryland, aimed at moving toward the resumption of peace talks.

"And we consider, as I know the Israeli government does, as does the Palestinian leadership, the fulfillment of road map obligations as a part of the Annapolis process," she said.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters that Rice spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday about the issue.

"We believe that both sides have obligations under the road map process," McCormack said, adding that "this is an opportunity for both sides to talk about what they are doing to fulfill the road map obligations."

But, he added, "Now, the announcement that we saw from the Israeli government, is it helpful to the process? No, it's not helpful to the process." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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