Israel PM calls for halt to West Bank settlement plan

Plan drew angry criticism from US officials and led to resignation of Palestinian negotiating team

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had asked his housing minister to reconsider a settlement plan after pressure from the international community.
David Buimovitch/Pool/AP

Israel's prime minister called for a halt to fresh plans for the construction of thousands of new homes in West Bank settlements, saying it had created an "unnecessary confrontation" with the international community that threatened to weaken his campaign against Iran's suspect nuclear program.

The proposal, announced Tuesday by Israel's Housing Ministry, drew angry criticism from officials in Washington, who said they had been blindsided by the announcement. A State Department statement reiterated that "we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity." The U.N. deems all Israeli settlements on land occupied during the war of June 1967 to be illegal.

The announcement was also sharply criticized by Palestinians, whose negotiating team resigned Wednesday, according to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

In an interview with Egyptian CBC television, Abbas said his team had quit but that Palestinian participation in negotiations would continue.

"Either we can convince it [the negotiating team] to return, and we're trying with them, or we form a new delegation," Abbas said.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat did not address his resignation, but told Reuters on Wednesday that talks with Israel were frozen.

Before the delegation resigned, Israell's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu said in a statement later on Tuesday that he had asked his housing minister, Uri Ariel, to reconsider the plan. He said Ariel, a member of the pro-settlement Jewish Home Party, had drawn up the plan "without any advance coordination."

"This step does not contribute to settlement. On the contrary, there is damage here for settlement," Netanyahu said. "This is a meaningless step — legally and in practice — and an action that creates an unnecessary confrontation with the international community at a time when we are making an effort to persuade elements in the international community to reach a better deal with Iran."

The issue of settlement construction has been at the heart of a standstill in peace efforts in recent years.

But Israeli Energy Minister Silvan Shalom, a member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party, made clear Wednesday that Israel would continue settlement building, while being more careful in the future about announcing it.

"The question is always about the timing. Is the timing right? Is the timing wrong?" he told Israel Radio. "We need the support of the United States on the Iranian issue and have to do our utmost to lower any tensions with it."

Click here for more on 20 years of peace process

The Palestinians claim the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — territories captured by Israel in 1967 — for an independent state. They say Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands is a sign of bad faith. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

The Housing Ministry refused to say how many of these homes were in settlements. But the anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now, which closely monitors construction activity, said the plans included nearly 20,000 apartments in the West Bank and 4,000 in east Jerusalem.

In all, Peace Now says Netanyahu's government has given final approval for nearly 3,500 new homes in settlements since taking office last March. In addition, it has promoted plans for nearly 9,000 additional homes.

Much of the international community generally rejects settlements as illegal or illegitimate, and the reaction to Israel's plan was swift.

Before the announcement of the Palestinian negotiators' resignation, Erekat said he had contacted the U.S., Russia, the European Union, the United Nations and the Arab League to voice objections about Israel's settlement plans.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the White House had been caught off guard and demanded "further explanation" from Israel.

"Our position on settlements is quite clear — we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity. We've called on both sides to take steps to create a positive atmosphere for the negotiations," she said.

Peace talks resumed in late July after a nearly five-year break. The sides have set an April target date for reaching an agreement.

Under heavy U.S. pressure, the Palestinians dropped a longstanding demand for a halt in settlement construction. To lure them back to the table, Israel agreed to release 104 of the longest-serving Palestinian prisoners — all convicted in violent attacks on Israelis — in four phases. The Palestinians say they also received assurances that settlement construction would be constrained.

Both sides have said the negotiations have made no progress. The situation deteriorated further two weeks ago when Israel, responding to its release of a second batch of prisoners, announced plans to build thousands of new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Those plans remain on track.

In an interview broadcast on Israeli and Palestinian TV last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said continued settlement construction raised questions about Israel's seriousness about pursuing peace. Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, said there have been no negotiations for the past week.

Israeli officials had unsuccessfully tried to play down Tuesday's announcement. They said the government was merely beginning a long-term feasibility study and no new construction had been approved. Any construction that does take place, they said, would be years away.

The Housing Ministry said it had published bids seeking architectural firms to look into possible construction of some 600,000 homes nationwide to ease a chronic housing crunch.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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