The Housing Ministry published tenders for the planning of some 20,000 settlement apartments — an unprecedented number — including 1,200 units in the controversial E1 corridor linking Jerusalem with Ma’ale Adumim to the east, the settlement watchdog Peace Now announced on Tuesday. Soon after the report broke, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled the tender for E1.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the White House had been caught off guard by the Israeli move. “We were surprised by these announcements, and are currently seeking further explanation from the government of Israel,” she said. “Our position on settlements is quite clear — we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.”
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said he had called the United States, Russia, the European Union, the United Nations and the Arab League to voice his protest. “I informed them that if Israel implements this decision, then this means the end of the negotiations and the end of the peace process,” he said.
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said building up E1, which critics say would prevent a contiguous Palestinian state, was “unwise” at the current juncture. Netanyahu didn’t cancel any of the other tenders, which applied to settlements both inside and outside major settlement blocs. Those included Kokhav Ya’akov (5,000 units), Ma’ale Adumim (2,000), Efrat (840), Tekoa (1,180), Shiloh (1,250), Gevaot (1,000) and others, Haaretz reported.
Ma’ale Adumim Mayor Benny Kasriel urged Netanyahu to reconsider his decision to cancel the E1 tender, claiming that in order to attract more residents, his town was in dire need of the development.
Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel reportedly published the planning tenders without notifying the prime minister. He defended his actions on Tuesday, saying that the publication of the tenders was a standard, purely procedural matter.
“Plans for the construction of 600,000 housing units across the country are announced each year; it is a process that takes seven years,” a ministry spokesperson told Haaretz. “This is not a marketing campaign for housing units, but the planning of an inventory. It may be used in the future and it may not, but there is no reason not to make plans.”
The E1 land strip, stretching from East Jerusalem to Ma’ale Adumim and covering a territory of nearly 3,000 acres, has for years been a bone of contention between Israel and the Palestinians. Critics of Israel’s West Bank policies have argued that construction in the area would make a contiguous Palestinian state nearly impossible, while Israeli officials claim building at the site is essential for the development of Jerusalem and for Israel’s security.
After the Palestinian Authority was granted nonmember observer status at the United Nations last year, Israel responded by reviving its plans to build in E1, a move that drew harsh international condemnation, including from Washington.
In March, Palestinian activists set up an outpost in the area to protest US President Barack Obama’s visit to the region. The outpost was later dismantled and nearly 40 activists were evacuated.
On Thursday, US Secretary of State John Kerry launched an unusually bitter public attack on Israeli policies in the West Bank, and warned that if current peace talks fail, Israel could see a third intifada amid growing international isolation. He also said that calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions would increase in such a case.
Meretz party leader Zahaza Gal-on was one of several left-wing Knesset members who criticized the move.
“It’s good that the prime minister came to his senses and ordered to halt the tenders in E1, although it’s too bad he left the job half done and authorized construction in other settlements at the same time,” she said. “It’s time for Netanyahu to rein in his ministers, who show [him] blatant disregard and attempt to thwart the peace process.”
AP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.