Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will announce new settlement construction next week, coinciding with Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners in the third of four phased releases agreed to as a precondition to peace talks, an Israeli official said Wednesday.
Israeli TV reports said that the plan called for 1,000 to 2,000 new settlement homes. Channel 10 said Netanyahu was going ahead with the announcement of new settlement building despite the fact that the last such announcement, which coincided with the second phase of prisoner releases, almost caused the collapse of peace talks. It said the US and EU had both urged him not to go ahead with the plan, but he was unmoved.
Wasil Abu Yousif, a Palestinian official, said the expected announcement is evidence that Israel is “not serious” about pursuing peace. “It’s clear to everyone now that the Israeli government is killing the peace process.” While stopping short of threatening to withdraw from the current round of peace negotiations, he said Israel’s policy would force the Palestinians to seek “more substantial alternatives.”
Despite a recent uptick in violence in the past week, with attacks on Israeli targets in Gaza and the West Bank, and the attempted bombing of an Israeli bus in Bat Yam, the cabinet decided Wednesday it would proceed as planned with the release of the 26 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons next Sunday.
Netanyahu in November halted much larger plans for new settlement construction advocated by his Housing Minister Uri Ariel, saying the move to push forward tens of thousands of new units over the Green Line was a “meaningless step” that would create pointless tension with the international community.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, since the beginning of 2013, 32,290 construction sites for housing units were erected across Israel, an increase of 5.5% compared to the corresponding time frame in 2012.
The release of Palestinian prisoners was one of the preconditions to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Israel in July agreed to release 104 prisoners, most of whom were convicted before the 1993 Oslo Accords, in four phases over the course of the nine-month negotiation process.
According to a Channel 2 report, the Netanyahu cabinet decided Wednesday that it would stick by its pledge on the prisoner releases to the US, which is brokering the talks with the Palestinians, and that the spike in terrorism did not justify breaching that commitment. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Wednesday that security officials would review which prisoners to release and which would remain incarcerated.
Ya’alon remarked that Israel was not overjoyed to let them free, but reiterated that the release of these prisoners “stems from broader considerations.”
Channel 2 said the pro-settlement Jewish Home party was not pushing for the announcement of new settlement building, since it felt the linkage of prisoner releases to West Bank settlement construction was damaging to the settlement enterprise. Thus, the report said, the announcement would be at the personal choice of Netanyahu.
AP contributed to this report.