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According to a senior Israeli official, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, special envoy for the peace process Martin Indyk and several other senior American officials have all urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials to exercise maximum restraint in announcing new construction, lest the measure undermine the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Kerry has visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority twice in the last three weeks, and had considered returning again on Thursday, on his way back to Washington from Southeast Asia. But he ultimately decided against it, and is now expected to return only in January, after the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Under the U.S.-brokered deal that enabled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to begin in July, Israel is to release four groups of Palestinian prisoners over the course of the talks, all of whom have been in jail since before the 1993 Oslo Accord was signed. The principal challenge Kerry will face in the coming weeks is the release of the third batch on December 29. When the second batch was released two months ago, Netanyahu approved the publication of tenders for 5,000 housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In response, the Palestinians suspended negotiations with Israel for two weeks and threatened to pull out of the talks altogether.
The senior Israeli official said that during both of Kerry’s last two visits, Netanyahu warned the secretary of state that Israel would announce new construction tenders to coincide with the next prisoner release as well.
In a column published in the daily Israel Hayom on Monday, former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the Oslo Accord, wrote that Netanyahu told Kerry he would approve tenders for 2,000 new housing units when the third batch of prisoners is released. Kerry passed that along to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Beilin continued, and Abbas exploded, claiming that this “broke all the rules."
The Americans fear that the Palestinians, who are already frustrated by the proposals the United States presented with regard to security arrangements under a future deal, will have trouble accepting tenders for thousands of new houses in the settlements as well, and will therefore blow up the talks.
Over the past few weeks, the Americans tried to avert the looming crisis by urging the Palestinians to agree to postpone the release of the third group of prisoners by one month. In exchange, they proposed, the release of the fourth and final batch would be moved up by two months. But the Palestinians adamantly rejected any change in the timetable of the prisoner releases, so the Americans were forced to look for other ways of averting a crisis.
The senior Israeli official said the Americans therefore asked Netanyahu to find some way to mitigate the planned construction announcements – for instance, by delaying them for a few weeks instead of publishing them immediately after the prisoners are freed.
This U.S. pressure on Netanyahu to refrain from announcing massive new construction joins similar efforts from the five largest countries in the European Union – Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain. The ambassadors of those five countries met with the Foreign Ministry’s director general on Monday and warned him that if the peace process collapses due to the announcement of new construction in the settlements, they would hold Israel responsible.