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New Israeli settlement announcement overshadows peace talks

Days before Israeli and Palestinian officials are expected to return to peace talks, Israel has announced settlement expansion plans in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Israel announced plans to advance settlement construction on some 1,200 homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, kicking up accusations by Palestinians that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is trying to undermine US-sponsored peace talks just days before they are set to begin.

The statement by Israel’s housing ministry aggravated tensions over the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in areas claimed by the Palestinians as part of a future state, a complaint that kept Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas away from the peace table for most of the last five years.

The announcement, which comes from a Housing Ministry controlled by pro-settlement hardliner Uri Ariel, appears to flaunt unconfirmed reports that US Secretary of State John Kerry obtained an Israeli commitment to rein in building during the coming nine months slated for peace talks. Settlement activity kicks up Palestinian criticism of Mr. Abbas for participating in talks.

“Approving such a massive number of housing units three days before we go to negotiations is sick,’’ says a Palestinian official familiar with the negotiations who asked not to be named. “We may not come” to the talks, he says. The Israeli move and the Palestinian response illustrates how, despite agreeing to hold the first talks in three years, relations between the Israeli and Palestinian governments continue to be rancorous — an atmosphere that appears to bode ill for successful negotiations.

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The Palestinians issued a protest letter late last week to Mr. Kerry over other instances of settlement activity. The Israeli government responded over the weekend by accusing Mr. Abbas and a Palestinian official of making “incendiary” remarks.

But after years of similar Israeli settlement declarations at sensitive diplomatic junctures — most notably during the visit here by Vice President Joe Biden in 2010 — few observers were surprised by the announcement and some suggested that provocative building announcements have become part and parcel of Israeli political maneuvering.

Happy settlers

Yossi Alpher, a former prime ministerial adviser on peace talks, said the building announcement was designed to mollify Mr. Netanyahu’s pro-settler constituency, which is upset over the renewed talks and the controversial release of some 100 Palestinian prisoners as a confidence building measure.

“It’s a familiar playbook. Kerry and the Palestinians knew this kind of announcement was coming. So they have to protest. None of this will affect the opening of talks because it was all choreographed,” says Mr. Alpher. “It’s a counter productive dynamic — building settlements to negotiate. It’s not something that Netanyahu invented. Rabin, Peres and Barak all did the same thing.’’  

Some 800 units that will be “marketed” to developers are located in areas of Jerusalem claimed by Palestinians for their future capital. Daniel Seideman, an Israeli expert on building in the city, said half of the projects had already been pushed before.

The remaining houses are slated for large established settlements in the West Bank rather than smaller fledgling settlements. The housing ministry statement comes just days after the government declared the settlements an area of “national priority” — making them eligible for special government subsidies — and Israel’s defense ministry advanced another 1,000 units at various stages of planning.

The statement came as newly appointed US peace process envoy Martin Indyk shuttled between Israeli and Palestinians to prepare the ground for the talks. The settlement announcement was criticized by Finance Minister Yair Lapid as a “mistake” and an “unnecessary provocation toward the Americans.”

But Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu said in a statement “this in no way changes the final map of peace. This changes nothing.”

Unhappy Palestinians

Palestinians complain that since the beginning of the negotiations with Israel some 20 years ago Israel’s settler population in the West Bank has tripled, affecting the contours of a future state.

While that hurts the standing of Abbas, many Palestinians also see the settlement announcements as an Israeli tactic to make it difficult for the Palestinian leader to negotiate — thereby allowing the Israeli government to portray him as an obstacle to peace.

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Israel “understands the psychology of the Palestinians. Now that the Palestinians want to override this settlements obstacle, Israeli radicals are planting minefields to undermine the credibility of the PA so it will walk away,” says Mohammed Dajani, a political science professor at Al Quds University.

“I think the president (Abbas) is pragmatic. He understands that these people are trying to derail the process. The question is how it will affect his popularity among the Palestinians, and how the Palestinians will read that.”