Palestine-Israel peace talks face collapse
Israel is moving forward with a plan to build nearly 900 new settlement housing units in east Jerusalem, an official said yesterday, in a move that angered Palestinians a day before the sides were to hold Mideast peace talks for the first time in nearly five years.
The Israeli announcement threatened to poison the atmosphere ahead of Wednesday's talks, which come after months of mediation by US Secretary of State John Kerry. In an initial gesture ahead of the talks, Israel was set to release 26 Palestinian prisoners late Tuesday.
The last round of substantive talks collapsed in late 2008, and negotiations have remained stalled mainly over the issue of Israeli settlement construction on territories claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.
The Palestinians say the settlements, now home to more than 500,000 Israelis, is making it increasingly difficult to carve out their state and that continued Israeli construction is a sign of bad faith.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said Israel's settlement plans are a slap in the face of the Palestinians and Kerry. “It is not just deliberate sabotage of the talks, but really a destruction of the outcome,” she said.
Ashrawi urged Kerry “to stand up to Israel” and deliver a tough response.
The latest construction is to take place in Gilo, an area in east Jerusalem that Israel considers to be a neighborhood of its capital. Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their capital, is not internationally recognised.
Efrat Orbach, an Interior Ministry spokeswoman, confirmed that approval had been given for expanding the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo.
The housing plan, which received initial approval last year, would expand Gilo's boundaries further toward a Palestinian neighborhood. The plans for 900 housing units in Gilo come in addition to an earlier announcement this week of some 1,200 other settlement homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians have refused to resume negotiations with Israel unless Israel halted its settlement construction, a demand that Israel has refused.
After six trips to the region, Kerry managed to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to drop the settlement issue as a condition for negotiations to start.
In exchange, Kerry Israeli agreement to answer another Palestinian demand and release 104 Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences, many for involvement in “killing” Israelis. The first batch of 26 inmates was set to be released by midnight.