The Israeli government has authorized the construction of nearly 1,000 homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank just as a new round of peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians is getting underway.
The issue is contentious because, as the Associated Press notes, “the Palestinians want to establish a state on land Israel captured in 1967 in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem” and “a key issue in renewed talks is where to draw the borders.” One potential roadblock to a two-state solution to the conflict would be how to evacuate many of the hundreds of thousands of settlers living on land that would become part of the Palestinian state, and adding more doesn’t make it easier.
While it was reported that the Israelis agreed to a partial settlement freeze as part of a wider series of concessions made by both the Israelis and the Palestinians to restart peace talks, it’s unclear at this point if the new plan will go forward. According to Reuters, a spokesperson for Israel’s military-run Civil Administration in the West Bank said the housing projects were approved but they still require a final sign-off from the government to begin construction.
But those critical of at least some aspects of the israeli government’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank spoke out against the new authority as representative that Israeli officials are not serious about the peace talks. “The promotion of over 1000 housing units elucidates the importance of a settlement freeze and proves the government’s less than genuine intention to negotiate seriously,” a statement from the Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now says, adding that the group “denounces all promotion of plans in settlements, especially during this sensitive and important time of negotiations.”
Also this week, the Israeli Cabinet, according to the AP, “expanded its list of West Bank settlements eligible for government subsidies” — the so-called “National Priority Areas” which are intended to “encourage development and the advancement of areas or communities that the government has decided are a national priority.”
Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi criticized the move, saying it “will have a destructive impact” on the peace negotiations.
Peace Now also condemned the expansion of the National Priority List, saying it “provides a clear example of the Israeli government choosing to incentivize and encourage Israeli citizens to immigrate into the settlements, especially into deep, isolated settlements that will not be included in any sort of peace agreement.” Ori Nir from the group’s American affiliate added that the move indicates that the Israeli government “is not serious about peace negotiations with the Palestinians.”
Dov Weisglass, a former adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said in an op-ed this week that the National Priority List expansion violates agreements Sharon made with the United States. “[E]conomic benefits to isolated settlements scattered deep within the Palestinian territories undermine the possibility of an agreement and make a mockery of the Israeli government’s peace rhetoric,” he wrote.
Referring to reports of a proposed new Jewish settlement in a predominantly Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood, Palestinian chief peace negotiator Saeb Erekat said continued settlement expansion “has a price and that this price will continue to grow” if Israel proceeds with its plans.
A recent internal report from the European Union — which recently said it would end funding and cooperation with Israeli organizations that operate in the occupied territories — called Israeli settlement policies “the biggest single threat to the two-state solution.”
President Obama has been highly critical of settlements as well. “I’ve been clear with Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli leadership that … we do not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace,” he said during a recent trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Thursday that negotiations with Israel will begin soon and Obama recently praised Abbas and Netanyahu for their “leadership and courage” in resuming peace talks.