Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Friday that the Palestinian Authority president has appealed to the US to block plans by Israel to announce new settlement construction.
In a late night meeting Thursday with US envoy Martin Indyk, Abbas “asked for US intervention to stop the Israeli government from issuing new settlement decisions in order to save the peace process and the American efforts,” Erekat said.
On Thursday, Palestinian Authority officials expressed outrage at reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to announce new settlement construction in the coming week, coinciding with Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners in the third of four phased releases agreed upon as a precondition to peace talks.
Erekat said Thursday that should Israel go ahead with the plan, the PA would “no longer remain committed to not joining international organizations,” including the International Criminal Court (ICC), according to the Palestinian Wafa news agency.
“We strongly condemn this matter and consider it a blast of the peace process,” Erekat told China’s Xinhua news agency.
“Those who fear the ICC should stop committing war crimes, including the construction of settlements,” he added.
Israel objects to this strategy, saying it is an attempt to circumvent the negotiating process. In particular, it fears the Palestinians will seek membership in the International Criminal Court and try to press war crimes charges against Israelis.
Palestinian officials are expected to meet on Sunday to discuss the issue.
Also Thursday, a European diplomat warned Jerusalem against approving new settlement construction amid ongoing talks with the Palestinians, saying Israel will be met with a “harsh response” from Brussels should it go ahead with the move.
Speaking with Channel 10, the unnamed diplomat said that there would be very little sympathy by European governments for the announcement of settlement construction during talks with the Palestinians, and that “Israel needs to expect a harsh response by the European governments if it intends to go in this direction.”
On Wednesday, Israeli TV reported that the plan to be announced by Netanyahu called for 1,000 to 2,000 new settlement homes. A Thursday Channel 2 report specified 600 homes over the Green Line inside Jerusalem, 800 more inside West Bank settlement blocs, and the start of the planning process for a further 1,000 units.
Channel 10 said the prime minister 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.
Palestinian Authority Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs, Issa Karake, said that the linkage between Palestinian prisoner releases and new settlement units was “unacceptable.”
“Unlike the release of prisoners, which advances peace talks and creates hope that a [peace] agreement can be reached, the building of settlements scuttles the possibility of moving forward [with negotiations],” said Karake, according to a report in Maariv Thursday.
He added that from the Palestinian point of view, the upcoming announcement is considered an “inappropriate Israeli stunt that is not conducive to future talks.”
Wasil Abu Yousif, a Palestinian official, said Wednesday that the expected announcement was 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 on 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.
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.
Palestinian officials acknowledge that Abbas appears to have little choice but to continue the negotiations until the agreed-upon nine-month period ends in April. They say that Abbas is wary of being blamed for the failure of the US-brokered talks.
Much could depend on US Secretary of State’s Kerry’s progress. The secretary has invested a great deal of personal prestige in the negotiations, repeatedly shuttling to the region and appointing senior officials to work closely with the sides. Indyk is a former ambassador to Israel, and retired Gen. John Allen, a former US commander in Afghanistan, has helped draft proposed security arrangements.
Kerry is hoping to arrange a “framework” peace agreement by April, and depending on the progress the sides make, could soon be presenting his own proposals, Palestinian officials say.
A framework deal would address all core issues of dispute — including the borders between Israel and a future Palestine, security arrangements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and conflicting claims to the holy city of Jerusalem. Erekat has said that if such a deal can be reached, the Palestinians would be willing to extend talks for another year in order to complete a formal peace treaty.