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Israel Approves Jerusalem Expansion Plan

By Daniel Sternoff
Reuters

JERUSALEM (June 21) - The Israeli cabinet, rebuffing criticism from Washington and the Palestinians, adopted on Sunday a plan to extend the boundaries of Jerusalem and deepen the city's ties with West Bank Jewish settlements.

Under the plan, the city will formally annex land to the west, in Israel proper, and an expanded ''umbrella municipality'' will adopt administrative powers over other nearby Jewish towns, including some in the occupied West Bank.

The umbrella municipality will have authority over construction and city planning in nearby West Bank Jewish settlements.

''Israel is acting to strengthen Jerusalem. We are not talking about changing the political status of Jerusalem and there is no addition of territory to the east of the city, only to the west,'' a cabinet statement quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as saying.

Netanyahu said the expanded city would unify and raise the efficiency of municipal services. The plan also calls for investments in high-technology, mass-transit, roads and housing.

Interior Minister Eli Suissa is charged with mapping out which areas will be annexed to the city and which will be included in the umbrella municipality.

In unveiling the program last Thursday, Netanyahu said it was aimed in part at strengthening Jerusalem's Jewish majority.

Palestinian officials blasted the plan as a ''racist'' program to alter the geography and demography of Jerusalem, saying the unilateral move could undermine U.S.-led Middle East peacemaking efforts.

''This is a declaration of war on the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem,'' chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters.

''I believe this is a racist, religious decision by Mr Netanyahu, racist because this plan is to...upset natural demographic development, to Judaize Jerusalem,'' he said.

He said the plan violated an interim Israeli-Palestinian peace accord that deferred Jerusalem's fate to negotiations on a final peace deal slated to end by May, 1999.

''I believe this decision will burn the bridges that will take us to the permanent status negotiations,'' Erekat said.

The U.S. State Department called the plan a ''provocative step'' at a sensitive time in its efforts to end a 15-month impasse in peace efforts and to launch final status talks.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed it in a move unrecognized by the international community. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as capital of a future state.

Earlier on Sunday, Netanyahu dismissed criticism of the plan as ''ridiculous.''

''The criticism that there was some violation of agreements that Israel has signed is ridiculous,'' Netanyahu told Army Radio before the cabinet approved the plan.

''Israel's activities in Jerusalem are in accordance with agreements and with the historic decree of the Jewish people,'' Netanyahu said.

Israeli spokesmen have said the city's expansion was aimed at bolstering its tax base.

Netanyahu said he spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the weekend to clarify details of the plan.

''It is truly strange that they issued this statement before they checked the issue with us,'' Netanyahu said of the U.S. criticism. ''After their check, I hope that they will view it in a more comprehensive and basic fashion.''

Israel's main opposition Labor party joined the chorus of criticism of the plan.

''This is the first time that an Israeli government successfully created an American-Palestinian coalition on the issue of Jerusalem,'' said Labor legislator Shlomo Ben-Ami.

Reut09:34 06-21-98

(c) Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited



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