Herzog: Freeze settlements, don’t release prisoners

Labor party leader and opposition head says continued West Bank construction is counterproductive to peace efforts

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog speaks during a faction meeting in the Knesset on December 23, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog speaks during a faction meeting in the Knesset on December 23, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog suggested over the weekend that Israel should freeze settlement construction in the West Bank rather than releasing additional Palestinian security prisoners as part of US-brokered peace talks.

In a personal letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent on Friday and subsequently publicized on Herzog’s Facebook feed, the opposition leader criticized the government’s current settlement construction policies as wasteful and counterproductive.

“I call on you to halt settlement construction, at least during the negotiations,” he wrote to Netanyahu.

In particular, he decried the policy of releasing Palestinian security prisoners as a goodwill gesture while simultaneously announcing massive settlement construction.

“If [the government] decides to release prisoners in order to advance diplomatic negotiations, I don’t understand why the government then advances settlement construction, which has the opposite effect,” he wrote.

Whatever credit Israel may get in the international community for releasing the prisoners is negated by the settlement construction, he said.

Based on private conversations he has held with relevant individuals, Herzog said, he believed Israel would be better off keeping the prisoners behind bars but halting construction.

“I predict that Israel will find a sympathetic ear if it asks to freeze construction instead of releasing prisoners,” he wrote. “That process would be positively received by the international community and the Palestinians. Even if at first it would face objections, we can easily make it a condition for negotiations.”

Herzog said releasing prisoners convicted of terrorism was a difficult and traumatic move for Israel, especially for the families of terror victims.

A cabinet committee on Saturday night finalized a list of 26 Palestinian prisoners set to go free late Monday at the earliest, in the third of a four-phase series of prisoner releases as part of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

The panel met earlier Saturday to approve the list of prisoners, all convicted of involvement in the murder or attempted murder of Israelis prior to the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords. They have all served between 19 and 28 years of their sentences, according to a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office.

The 26 are set to go free this week, after a legally mandated 48-hour period during which opponents can appeal the release of individual prisoners.

Last Wednesday, Israeli media reported that Netanyahu planned to announce new settlement construction this week, coinciding with Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners. Television reports said that the plan called for 1,400 new settlement homes.

Families of terror victims demonstrated Saturday night against the scheduled releases. Representatives of the families claimed Netanyahu has been refusing to meet with them.

Under heavy US pressure, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed in July amid deep skepticism and low expectations from both sides. The negotiations are taking place in secrecy and neither side has given details on their content, though any agreement is expected to require the dismantling of many Israeli settlement communities in the West Bank and the relocation of their residents.

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