Israel denies it agreed to settlement slowdown during talks
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Israel denies it agreed to settlement slowdown during talks

Arab media reports claim US peace envoy informed the Palestinians of Jerusalem's agreement to ease back on construction

US Middle East peace envoy Jason Greenblatt (C) and US Ambassador David Friedman (to his right) meet with Israeli and Palestinian basketball coaches in Jerusalem, July 11, 2017.  (Matty Stern/US Embassy, Tel Aviv)
US Middle East peace envoy Jason Greenblatt (C) and US Ambassador David Friedman (to his right) meet with Israeli and Palestinian basketball coaches in Jerusalem, July 11, 2017. (Matty Stern/US Embassy, Tel Aviv)

Israel on Wednesday denied that it agreed to a slowdown in settlement construction as part of any future peace talks.

The denial came after the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat quoted Jason Greenblatt — US President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — telling a senior Palestinian official on Tuesday that Israel had agreed to “slow down” settlement construction during formal negotiations between Palestinians and Israel, which Trump will “soon” be calling for.

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was due to meet with Greenblatt Wednesday, denied the report, saying, “There is no such commitment” to freeze settlement building.

According to the report, the US intends to facilitate “open negotiations” between the two sides, in which the thorny final status issues will be negotiated separately. These include Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, borders, water and security.

Agreement reached on any of these issues would be “immediately announced” in order to create a “positive atmosphere.”

Construction in the Israeli West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, near the city of Hebron, on April 2, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Construction in the Israeli West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, near the city of Hebron, on April 2, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

“If an agreement is reached on the border, it will be announced immediately, and if an agreement is reached on water, it will be announced as well,” the senior Palestinian official reportedly said.

Greenblatt arrived in Jerusalem Sunday for what a senior White House official described as “an interim visit as talks continue about potential next steps. President Trump has made it clear that working toward achieving a lasting peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians is a top priority for him.”

On Tuesday, Greenblatt, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and US Consul General Donald Blum met in Jerusalem with a Palestinian team, which included chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, PA intelligence chief Majid Faraj and the head of the Palestinian Investment Fund, Mohammed Mustafa.

Settlements have long been one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the Palestinians and much of the international community saying that their expansion threatens the territorial continuity of a future Palestinian state.

In the past the Palestinians insisted on a settlement freeze as a precondition for starting talks, though they have eased up on that demand since Trump entered office.

In March, Israel agreed to self-imposed restrictions on new settlement construction in what was seen as a gesture to the Trump administration after months-long negotiations between the two sides failed to yield any formal understanding on the matter.

The White House at the time said it “welcomed” the curb, also cautioning Israel against engaging in large-scale construction projects.

As part of the restrictions, Jerusalem agreed not to construct any new settlements or illegal outposts, while also limiting new building to inside existing settlement boundaries. However, if legal, security or topographical limitations do not allow adherence to those guidelines, new homes will be built outside the current settlement boundaries but as close as possible to them.

Netanyahu’s announcement in March of the new limitations, which he reportedly said were made in order to “be considerate of the [US] president’s requests,” came after the security cabinet voted unanimously to approve a new settlement for the evacuees of the illegal Amona outpost north of Ramallah. The planned settlement would be the first new settlement in the West Bank since the 1993 Oslo Accords.

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