Aiming to calm critics, Netanyahu cancels massive settlement plan

PM says move for 20,000 units harms settlements and undermines efforts to stymie Iran’s nuclear ambitions; US wants answers; Palestinians threaten ‘end of peace process’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered plans for new settlement construction pulled back late Tuesday, 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.

“This step does not contribute to settlement. On the contrary, there is damage here for settlement,” Netanyahu told Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel, according to the Prime Minister’s Office. “This is a meaningless step – legally and in practice – and an action that creates an unnecessary confrontation with the international community at a time when we are making an effort to persuade elements in the international community to reach a better deal with Iran.”

Earlier in the day, the Housing Ministry published tenders for the planning of some 20,000 settlement units — an unprecedented number — including 1,200 homes in the controversial E1 corridor linking Jerusalem with Ma’ale Adumim to the east, drawing harsh responses from the US and Palestinian Authority.

Ariel accepted the request to cancel the plans, according to the statement from the PMO.

Netanyahu indicated that his motivation for scrambling to have the plans undone was connected to his ongoing efforts to lobby the international community against making a deal with Iran to ease sanctions in return for curbing nuclear activity. Netanyahu has been harshly critical of efforts to reach a deal between Tehran and the West, calling a proposed agreement “bad and dangerous” over the weekend, and declaring Tuesday that it was “worse than bad.”

“The attention of the international community must not be diverted from the main effort – preventing Iran from receiving an agreement that will allow it to continue its military nuclear program,” Netanyahu said late Tuesday, according to the PMO statement.

In a rare public reprimand of Ariel, who comes from the nationalist Jewish Home party, Netanyahu said the move to push forward with the new units was made without prior coordination with the government, and implied it was not thought through.

Minister of Housing and Construction Uri Ariel (left) with the mayor of Ma’aleh Adumim Benny Kasriel during a ceremony in the tract of land known as E1, located between the large West Bank settlement and Jerusalem, in April 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)
Minister of Housing and Construction Uri Ariel (left) with the mayor of Ma’ale Adumim Benny Kasriel during a ceremony in the tract of land known as E1, located between the large West Bank settlement and Jerusalem, in April 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)

The US had also said the announcement of the plans had caught it off guard.

“We were surprised by these announcements, and are currently seeking further explanation from the government of Israel… Our position on settlements is quite clear — we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said.

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.

Netanyahu earlier canceled the plan to publish tenders for the 1,2000 units in E1, a controversial strip of land which critics say would slice land the Palestinians want for a state in two.

Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said building up E1 was “unwise” at the current juncture.

The other tenders applied to settlements both inside and outside major settlement blocs. Those included Kokhav Ya’akov (5,000 units), Ma’aleh Adumim (2,000), Efrat (840), Tekoa (1,180), Shiloh (1,250), Gvaot (1,000) and others, Haaretz reported.

Ariel 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.”

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.

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