Right-wing ministers decry settlement freeze

Jewish Home and Likud politicians say peace talks must not start with a halt in West Bank construction

After the weekend announcement that US-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians were to resume, right-wing ministers came out against a potential de facto slowdown in settlement construction that is rumored to be part of a deal that brought the two sides to the table.

Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the national-religious Jewish Home party, which has strong links to the settler movement, said Sunday that a freeze was “inappropriate for the Jewish people, for the land of Israel and for a sovereign state… we are in favor of building as much as possible.”

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, from the ruling Likud party, said halting construction in the settlements would be “immoral, un-Jewish and inhuman.”

On Saturday, a senior Palestinian official told The Wall Street Journal the US had told Ramallah that Israel would stop approving new homes in West Bank settlements, but would not announce an official freeze.

A settlement building moratorium has long been one of the preconditions for discussions set by Palestinian leadership, but Jerusalem denied it agreed to any such measure when new peace talks were announced Friday.

Katz said he did not believe a freeze would be implemented. “Settlement is strong and growing,” he said.

Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) told Radio Israel that while a resumption of talks was “in Israel’s national interest,” there was no official construction ban implemented as part of a pre-talks deal. The chances of success at the talks in any case are slim, he added, because the Palestinians are “not ready for a historic decision.”

“It’s been proven that when we stand firm in our demands, we can enter talks without preconditions, without construction freezes, and certainly without the crazy demand that we base negotiations on the ’67 lines,” Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) said Saturday. “As negotiations get underway, we will insist on continuing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank. History has taught us that building produces life, while dismantling settlements produces terror.”

According to a Saturday statement from minister Yuval Steinitz of the Likud, Israel has agreed to at least one of the Palestinian demands, albeit only after the talks get under way rather than as a precondition for talks: the release of potentially dozens of long-term Palestinian prisoners, held in Israeli jails, many of whom were imprisoned for terrorist activity.

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