Israeli officials on Wednesday decided to delay announcing new settlement construction while US Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting the region, saying it was inappropriate to make the announcement during the American diplomat’s stay.
The tenders for new construction reported last week would be announced after Kerry departs, the officials said, with Haaretz quoting an Israeli source as saying: “Nobody has an intention of sticking a finger in Kerry’s eye.”
Kerry’s arrival, set for Thursday, comes days after Israel released a third group of Palestinian prisoners and amid a row over reported plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to authorize construction of 1,400 homes over the pre-1967 Green Line — 600 in Jerusalem, and 800 in West Bank settlements. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has urged the US to block the plans and on Tuesday threatened to rally the UN against Israel’s settlements, which he termed a “cancer.”
An Israeli official said last Wednesday that Netanyahu would announce the construction of 1,000 to 2,000 new apartments over the Green Line following Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners in the third of four phased releases agreed to as a precondition to peace talks.
Israeli TV reports in late December said that the plan called for thousands of 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. The report said the US and EU had both urged him not to go ahead with the plan, but he was unmoved.
Kerry was scheduled to depart for Israel on Wednesday for his tenth visit since taking office, and will try to get Israel and the Palestinians to agree to the outlines of a final peace agreement. He doesn’t expect a “big breakthrough” during his trip to the region this week, a senior State Department official said Tuesday.
Any agreed framework would not be a signed document, but would address all core issues, including the borders between Israel and a future Palestine; security; Palestinian refugees; and conflicting claims to the holy city of Jerusalem, the official said. The official also said if the parties agreed on a framework for negotiating a final peace deal, it might not be made public to avoid exposing the leaders to political pressures at home.
A framework might not even be enough to ensure a subsequent face-to-face meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas, an indication perhaps that wide gaps remain.
Kerry has invested a lot of time conducting negotiations in hopes of reaching a deal within nine months. The target date expires at the end of April, and while that is not considered a deadline to end talks, there has been little, if any, tangible sign of progress so far. Asked if the framework could be achieved before April, the official said “We hope we can get it sooner,” but he insisted he was not setting any deadlines.
The official said negotiators have identified gaps between the two parties, but also have generated some ideas that could help breach them. Kerry’s trip, which will take him to Israel and the Palestinian territories, is to start to test those ideas with Abbas and Netanyahu, see if progress can be made and decide where to go from there.
Israeli and Palestinian politicians on Tuesday staked out “red lines” they claimed their leaders would never cross once presented with Kerry’s widely anticipated proposal for the outlines of a peace deal. In Washington, the official stressed that the framework was not an American plan that would be imposed on the parties. He said a framework would outline the end point of the negotiations, rather than being an interim agreement.
Abbas struck a tough tone in a televised New Year’s Eve speech, saying he would “not hesitate for a moment to say no, regardless of the pressure, to any proposal that contradicts or sidesteps the national interests of our people.”
He reiterated the Palestinian demand for a state in the lands Israel captured in 1967, with east Jerusalem as a capital, and a fair solution for Palestinian refugees who, along with their descendants, today number several million people.
Abbas said he would not accept an Israeli military presence in a future Palestinian state, a reference to what Palestinians say was a US bridging proposal to maintain Israeli troops on the eastern border of that state for at least a decade. The Palestinians must have control over all of the lands of their state, along with its water resources, air space, borders and border crossings, Abbas said in his speech, which also marked the 49th anniversary of the founding of his Fatah movement.
Netanyahu, for his part, is insisting that IDF troops continue to secure the border between the West Bank and Jordan even under a permanent accord for Palestinian statehood. He also insists a Palestinian state be demilitarized. And he is demanding that Abbas recognize Israel as “the Jewish state” and agree that a permanent accord represents an “end to the conflict” and to any further claims against Israel.