OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Palestinians called the Israel government’s move Sunday to issue tenders for nearly 1,200 new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem proof it was “not serious” about peace talks.
Israeli media, in unconfirmed reports, suggested Sunday’s housing plans were disclosed to Washington in advance and were aimed at securing Cabinet approval for prisoner releases designed to spur negotiations halted three years ago.
The Cabinet agreed late Sunday to release a first batch of 26 prisoners. The prisoners are to be freed in four stages during the negotiations, with the first group to be released Tuesday.
“Following the government decision to renew peace talks with the Palestinians and appoint a ministerial committee to free prisoners during negotiations ... the committee approved the release of 26 prisoners,” a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
Concerns are mounting, however, among both Palestinians and Israelis over the conditions each side agreed to start negotiations.
Israeli unease over the negotiations spilled into vocal protests by relatives of those killed in attacks carried out by Palestinians prisoners slated for release.
Bereaved relatives held up large photos of their loved ones during a Supreme Court hearing on an appeal against the upcoming release.
Palestinians fears of a new Israeli construction spurt grew after Sunday’s announcement, Israel’s third in a week promoting settlements.
Israelis and Palestinians are to launch talks Wednesday in Jerusalem, following a preparatory round two weeks ago in Washington.
The United States envisions reaching an agreement within nine months on the terms of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, including drawing a border, agreeing on security arrangements and deciding the fate of Palestinian refugees.
The Palestinians want a state to include the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. However, they are willing to swap some West Bank land for Israeli territory to allow Israel to annex some of the largest Jewish settlements. In all, Israel has built dozens of settlements since 1967 that are now home to some 560,000 Israelis.
Israel has made a push on settlements since the resumption on July 30 of U.S.-brokered talks on Palestinian statehood, signaling its intention to continue to build in major enclaves it wants to keep in any future peace deal.
The Housing Ministry said on its website that tenders were issued for building 793 new apartments in areas of the West Bank that Israel illegally annexed after capturing the territory and the eastern part of Jerusalem in 1967.
Plots for the construction of 394 more units were being sold in Ariel, Efrat, Maale Adumim and Betar, settlements in areas Israel has said it aims to retain in any land-for-peace accord.
“We shall continue with construction, everywhere,” Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the far-right Jewish Home party said at the formal relaunch of an Israeli housing project in East Jerusalem Sunday.
The diplomatic paralysis of the last three years was largely due to disputes over the settlements, deemed illegal by most of the international community.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas long insisted he would only resume talks if Israel froze construction. Netanyahu rejected a freeze. Abbas, under pressure from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, eventually dropped it as a condition for talks.
In exchange, Kerry won Israeli agreement that it would release 104 Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences, many for involvement in killing Israelis.
Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose centrist party is right-wing Netanyahu’s biggest partner in the governing coalition, called the decision to issue the settlement housing tenders “unhelpful to the peace process.”
Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman, dismissed the criticism, saying: “The construction decided upon today in Jerusalem and in the settlement blocs are in areas that will remain part of Israel in any possible future peace agreement. This in no way changes the final map of peace. It changes nothing.”
The Palestinians responded angrily, but stopped short of walking away from the negotiations.Palestinian negotiator Mohammad Shtayeh slammed the expansion, saying it was proof Israel was “not serious in the negotiations.”
He said the new tenders were “conditions and new facts on the ground” that Israel was setting in order “to determine the negotiations in whichever way suits it best.” Shtayeh also called for Washington to take “a firm and clear position to rein in this Israeli attack on the West Bank and especially Jerusalem.”
“It is clear that the Israeli government is deliberately attempting to sabotage U.S. and international efforts to resume negotiations,” he said. “ Israel continues to use peace negotiations as a smoke screen for more settlement construction.”
The main U.S. mediator in the talks, Martin Indyk, met Sunday with Abbas at his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah. It reported that during the meeting Indyk reaffirmed U.S. President Barack Obama’s commitment to back efforts to push ahead with the peace talks within the time frame agreed upon.
Some Palestinian commentators have criticized Abbas for returning to negotiations without Israel either agreeing to a settlement freeze or recognizing the 1967 frontier as a baseline for talks.
“The Palestinians need to quit the talks because all they get is more building in the settlement buildings,” said Hani Habib, a Palestinian writer and commentator. He said Abbas shouldn’t have traded Palestinian national aspirations for a prisoner release, an emotional issue for both sides.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat denied Sunday that the Palestinians had acquiesced to any prisoners-for-settlements trade-off, even implicitly.