JERUSALEM - Israel moved yesterday to approve a plan to build 900 more housing units in a Jewish neighborhood in the part of Jerusalem claimed by Palestinians, drawing harsh criticism from the United States.
The Jerusalem district planning commission officially deposited the plan, opening it to comments, objections, and appeals from the public. Jerusalem city spokesman Gidi Schmerling said final approval was "many months" away.
Palestinians and Britain denounced the plan, but reaction from the United States was especially sharp.
A statement from White House spokesman Robert Gibbs criticized unilateral steps by Israel "that could unilaterally preempt, or appear to preempt, negotiations" and said the issue of Jerusalem "must be resolved through negotiations between the parties." He added, "The U.S. also objects to other Israeli practices in Jerusalem related to housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes."
Responding to the White House statement, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said that words from Washington were not enough. "There should be real American pressure on the Israelis to stop all these acts," he said. "Such acts prove that Israel does not want peace and does not want to revive the peace process."
In a statement, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the plan. "This concerns a routine procedure of the district planning commission," the statement said. "The neighborhood of Gilo is an integral part of Jerusalem."
At a forum in Buenos Aires, Argentina, yesterday, Israeli President Shimon Peres predicted the people of Venezuela and Iran would make their leaders disappear before too long.
Peres said both Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had gone crazy over oil, which he says is not bad to sell but "really dangerous if you swallow it."
He said both leaders were headed for a fall.
"They won't hold, not because any of us is going to kill them; their own people are getting tired of them," Peres said. "So if you want good relations with them, consider that they are passing passengers. It's a short-term relationship. So don't waste too much on them."
Peres is touring Latin America to counter growing Iranian influence in the region just ahead of a visit by Ahmadinejad to Brazil and Venezuela.
Also yesterday, the Israeli army punished six soldiers, sending two to prison, for protesting the army's demolition of structures at an unauthorized settler outpost in the West Bank, the military said.
The soldiers hung a banner Monday at an army base in the West Bank, proclaiming their opposition to using the army for such missions. The soldiers faced courts-martial, the military said.
A photograph of them hoisting the banner was featured widely in Israeli media yesterday.
Other soldiers carried out orders to dismantle two makeshift houses Monday at the outpost of Negohot, near the city of Hebron.