JERUSALEM -- Israel won't expand its largest West Bank settlement until it has US approval for the project, Israel's vice premier said in an interview published yesterday, an issue that touches on one of the thorniest problems for Jerusalem's future.
Expanding the Maaleh Adumim settlement would cut off Jerusalem from the West Bank, making it virtually impossible for Palestinians to establish a future capital in the eastern part of the city.
Past Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have broken down largely due to the impasse over the fate of Jerusalem. Bloodshed has also erupted over the city, home to shrines sacred to Judaism and Islam.
Palestinian officials yesterday welcomed the comments by Vice Premier Ehud Olmert of Israel but said they have not been formally notified of a decision to suspend the expansion. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, urged Israel to call off the construction altogether.
The United States has repeatedly asked Israel not to expand West Bank settlements, in line with its commitment under the internationally backed ''road map" peace plan, and specifically condemned the Maaleh Adumim expansion project.
As part of the project, Israel had planned to build 3,650 apartment units in a new neighborhood that would connect the settlement of 30,000 residents to Jerusalem. Only a few months ago, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was quoted as saying Israel would move ahead with the project.
However, Olmert said yesterday the plan has been suspended.
''The state of Israel has committed itself to freeze the building," Olmert told The Jerusalem Post daily.
Sharon has said that in any future peace deal with the Palestinians, Israel would keep the large West Bank settlement blocs, including Maaleh Adumim.
Olmert told the Post that Maaleh Adumim would eventually be expanded. ''It is absolutely clear that at a certain point in the future, Israel will create continuity between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, and so there is not even an argument that in the end we will have to build the project," Olmert said.
However, he added that Israel would not act unilaterally. ''When the conditions are ripe, we will raise the issue with the Americans again," he said. ''It is clear we will not do anything behind the back of the Americans."
Access to Jerusalem already has been hindered by Israel's construction of a security barrier that separates it from the West Bank.
The barrier of concrete walls and razor wire is meant to prevent suicide bombers and other Palestinian attackers from entering Israel. But in some areas, it cuts Palestinians off from neighboring towns and villages.
In the West Bank town of Bilin yesterday, about 100 activists protested construction of the barrier. An Israeli soldier was slightly wounded when an antibarrier activist beat him, the army said.
The fate of Jerusalem is also expected to become a central issue in the battle for leadership of Sharon's ruling Likud Party. Sharon's challenger, former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu, toured Maaleh Adumim at the launch of his campaign earlier this week and accused Sharon of making too many concessions.