JERUSALEM - Israel announced plans yesterday to build more than 300 homes in a disputed East Jerusalem neighborhood, drawing quick Palestinian condemnation that the move will undermine revived peace talks.
The new housing would expand Har Homa, a Jewish neighborhood in an area Palestinians claim as capital of a future state. Palestinian officials appealed to Washington to block the project, but Israel says a pledge to halt settlement activity does not apply anywhere in the holy city.
The plan focuses attention on one of the most difficult issues facing Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in peace talks that are supposed to resume this month - the future of Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, President Bush will visit the Mideast in early January as he presses the Israelis and Palestinians to restart moribund peace talks, the White House said yesterday.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe would not release any details of Bush's itinerary. But an Israeli television station said the president would visit Israel.
Last week, Bush hosted a high-profile Mideast conference in Annapolis, Md., where Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told international backers and skeptical Arab neighbors that they were ready to resume bargaining toward achieving an independent Palestinian homeland.
Bush has held Mideast peacemaking at arms' length for most of his nearly seven years in office but argues that conditions in Israel and the Palestinian territories now are right for a more energetic role. He said Israeli and Palestinian leaders are ready to make peace, there is a wider and unifying fight against extremism fed by the Palestinian conflict and the world understands the urgency of acting now.
Channel 2 TV reported, meanwhile, that President Bush will visit Israel next month for the first time in his presidency. The report said he would focus on Israel-Palestinian peace talks and Iran's nuclear program. Other Israeli media outlets reported the Bush visit would take place Jan. 9.
The announcement that 307 homes would be built at Har Homa came at a time of rising Israeli frustration over almost daily rocket attacks on Israel by Islamic militants in Gaza. Israel pledged to press ahead with its campaign against the Gaza militants, saying that by nightfall yesterday 21 rockets and mortars had been fired on Israel, bringing the 12-month total to more than 2,000.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said it is time to "kill those who carry out attacks" against Israelis, but added he was holding off on a large-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip for now. Barak told Army Radio that Israeli troops killed 27 Gaza militants in the past 10 days and would continue to chase down those operating under Hamas rule. Early yesterday, an Israeli air strike on a Hamas police post in central Gaza killed three militants and wounded a fourth.
Har Homa, where about 4,000 Israelis now live, is just inside the expanded city limits of Jerusalem, drawn after Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.