Israel slowing settlement construction in bid to boost ties with PA

Both sides taking series of steps to increase mutual trust, which could lead to new peace talks; senior Israeli minister to meet top Palestinian official abroad

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A construction worker next to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa in October, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
A construction worker next to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa in October, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A series of meetings between senior Palestinian and Israeli officials has recently led to significant steps by both sides intended to defuse Israeli-Palestinian tension, and these could lead to renewed negotiations, a senior official said.

Secret contacts between the senior officials, who are representing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, have been taking place for several months and are still continuing, despite official peace talks that have stagnated for over a year.

In Israel, the Prime Minister’s Office denied the report. Attempts to obtain a response from chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat were unsuccessful.

Sources say both sides have taken a number of steps over the past three months, including, on Israel’s part, a slowdown in settlement construction, in a bid to calm the situation in light of the instability spreading across the Middle East.

The steps were taken “not by agreement but as part of a reassessment of the situation in the region,” a Palestinian official said.

Palestinian measures have included halting, for the time being, applications to join UN agencies and other international bodies as part of the Palestinian statehood drive.

Israeli authorities have slowed down construction in West Bank settlements and have increased permits for West Bank Palestinians to pray at the Temple Mount over the Ramadan holy month in a bid to show real will to improve ties.

“Each side understands the other side’s needs,” a source told The Times of Israel.

While Israeli construction in the West Bank has continued, new permits for future building plans have been held up for months.

An Israeli source defined ongoing construction as continuing “natural expansion” but nothing beyond that.

Some Israeli sources attributed the slowdown to concerns over international backlash and not to understandings with the Palestinian Authority, though it was not clear if they all knew about the secret contacts between Israel and the PA.

On Monday, settler leaders accused Netanyahu of freezing construction and of telling a closed Likud meeting that he had international pressures to worry about. The Likud party denied the claim.

Senior Palestinian officials say additional steps aimed at improving trust between Netanyahu and Abbas and between Israel and the PA be taken place soon.

Among them, a senior Israeli minister is expected to meet a senior PLO and Fatah official in a foreign country, at the end of next week.

The PA also expects Israel to unfreeze some economic plans for Area C of the West Bank (where Israel is in full control). Reunification of Palestinian families and permits for the Palestinian security apparatus to purchase more arms are also apparently in the offing.

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