Israeli Settlement Deals, a Blow to U.S. Sponsored Peace Talks

Israel announced plans this week to build 1,400 new housing units in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, delivering a blow to the United States’ efforts to broker an agreement to end the 66-year old dispute between the Jewish state and the Palestinian people.

Friday’s publication of the construction plans by Israel’s Housing Ministry had been expected following the release from Israeli prisons of 26 long-serving Palestinians inmates on December 26.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed last year to release 104 Palestinian prisoners as part of a deal brokered by the U.S. to restart dormant peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Netanyahu, who heads a coalition government dominated by right-wing parties, agreed to the release after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas demanded a freeze on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in exchange for resuming peace talks with Israel.

The U.S. forged a compromise between the two sides under which Israel would release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in four batches during nine months of peace talks with the Palestinians, but would be allowed to continue construction in the settlements during the duration of the negotiations.

Since the resumption of the negotiations, Israel’s government has timed announcements of new construction in Jewish settlements, which are aimed at placating right-wing parties in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, including members of the prime ministers hawkish Likud Party, to coincide with the controversial prisoner releases.

The prisoners freed on December 26 were the third group of long-serving Palestinian inmates to be released since the U.S. brokered talks began on August 14.

Israel’s Housing Ministry on Friday continued the trend of pairing prisoner releases with announcements of new housing construction in the more than 100 settlements that dot the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which the Jewish state seized from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. The Housing Ministry published tenders for more 801 housing units in the West Bank, along with 600 units for Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

In addition to these tenders, the ministry also announced that it was again accepting bids for the construction of 532 housing units in East Jerusalem that had previously failed to attract offers from construction companies.

Friday’s announcement precipitated an angry reaction from Palestinian officials, who characterized the construction plans as a blow to the fragile peace talks, which appear to have made little headway since they were launched last summer. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the housing plans showed, “Israel’s clear commitment to the destruction of peace efforts.”

Peace Now, an anti-settlement group, reported Israel had announced plans for 5,439 housing units in settlements since the peace talks with the Palestinians were launched.  About 500,000 Israeli’s live in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

– Eric Erdahl

Sources: BBC Q&A, BBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post
Photo: Global Post