‘PM cuts secret deal with Jewish Home on settlements’

Netanyahu promises thousands of new West Bank homes, Maariv reports, to keep nationalist party from bolting coalition over prisoner releases

In a deal to temper Jewish Home’s resistance to the release of over a hundred long-time Palestinian prisoners, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to advance construction of thousands of housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Hebrew daily Maariv reported Wednesday morning.

The Prime Minister’s office declined to comment on the report.

According to the report, members of the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party were convinced to swallow what they saw as the bitter pill of the prisoner release — and not threaten to walk out of the government — for the sake of furthering their cause of fortifying the settlement enterprise.

Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) reportedly acted as the go-between in negotiations that culminated with Netanyahu’s offer, which was sent in a hand-delivered sealed envelope to the desk of the party’s head, Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, the paper reported. The secrecy over the deal was to prevent details being leaked and potentially sabotaging the start of peace talks in Washington on Monday-Tuesday.

The expectation is that 1,000 housing units will be approved in the near future, with a further 3,500-4,500 units to be added in the next few months.

Ariel’s spokesman Arik Ben Shimon denied the report, saying the Jewish Home would never link between settlement construction and the release of Palestinian prisoners. He told the Times of Israel the party didn’t ask and wasn’t offered such a deal.

Bennett and the three other Jewish Home ministers voted against the controversial phased release of the 104 pre-Oslo Accords prisoners in Sunday’s cabinet meeting, but the deal silenced earlier threats by party members to bolt the coalition.

“This is the time to think about leaving the government,” Jewish Home MK Yoni Chetboun had declared Sunday morning at a demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s Office against the release of the prisoners. “The Jewish Home party has no place in an Israeli government that would release terrorists guilty of murder. We are turning our backs on bereaved families. It’s a surrender to terror.”

The prisoners to be released included many convicted of deadly terror attacks on IDF soldiers and Israeli civilians

In a weekly faction meeting Monday, Jewish Home party members were requested to refrain from threatening to leave the coalition because a new understanding on the government’s settlement construction was in the pipeline, the newspaper said. Bennett reportedly told his party colleagues the peace talks that started this week in Washington were not expected to bear fruit.

On Monday, while addressing the Knesset plenum, Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked vowed that for every terrorist released there would be dozens of homes constructed in the West Bank.

On Tuesday, a senior State Department official in Washington addressed the fact that the current return to negotiations does not include an Israeli settlement freeze, a precondition that the Palestinians had previously demanded.

“The United States’ position on the settlements remains unchanged. We’ve made that very, very clear to the parties all the way along,” the official said. “As we’ve said, we hope they will take steps to create a positive atmosphere for negotiations. But I think it’s also safe to say that whereas last time we did an extensive amount of work to create a settlement moratorium or a settlement freeze, we haven’t gone down that path now. And so I think it would be fair to say that you are likely to see Israeli settlement continue — activity continue, and we’ve made our position very clear on that to the Israelis.”

As for the envelopes, Ben Shimon said leaders relay messages all the time.

“The Jewish Home maintains its position that there will not be a construction freeze in Judea and Samaria as a precondition to starting negotiations,” a source in the party told The Times of Israel. “And so it will be. In a separate matter, the Jewish Home is the only party in the coalition that unanimously objected to the release of murderers. It would be better if those who vote to release murderers will consider their actions.”

The report of Netanyahu’s agreement with Bennett came the day after the conclusion of a first round of talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, during which US Secretary of State John Kerry laid down a nine-month timetable to resolve “all issues” and end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Peace Now said it would ask the attorney general to make public any such agreement between Netanyahu and Jewish Home, as required for all coalition agreements.

“The obsession over settlement construction once again is overcoming common sense and the attempt to produce a different atmosphere between the Israeli and Palestinian people,” said Peace Now director Yariv Oppenheimer.

PLO official Yasser Abd Rabbo told Palestinian radio Wednesday that further settlement construction would put an end to negotiations.

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