Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Israel will limit the issuing of building tenders to 1,000 housing units in West Bank settlements during the six to nine months of negotiations with the Palestinians, Israeli officials said on Thursday.
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The talks between Israel and the Palestinians will resume on Tuesday in Washington, Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom told reporters in Jericho Thursday following a meeting with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Senior Israeli officials familiar with the diplomatic jockeying said Netanyahu is expected to announce the tenders on Sunday, along with his announcement of the release of 82 Palestinian prisoners.
The officials, who wished to remain anonymous, said that throughout the past three months of discussions on resuming the negotiations, the Palestinians had demanded a complete freeze on all construction in the settlements. But Netanyahu refused to suspend all construction again, as he did for 10 months during his previous term in office, they said.
Netanyahu therefore told Kerry he would continue to approve construction of a few hundred housing units, but mainly in the large settlement blocs, as he has been doing since March.
“There will be no freeze, but we won’t build thousands of housing units everywhere, either,” Netanyahu told Likud MKs at the party’s faction meeting earlier this week.
In briefing Kerry on his plans for construction in the settlements during the talks, Netanyahu made the following commitments:
1. Israel will issue tenders to build no more than 1,000 housing units in the large settlement blocs − Ariel, Ma’aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion. The tenders had been issued previously, but were disqualified due to technical faults. They will now be reissued.
2. Apart from that, the government will not carry out or announce any construction in the settlement blocs.
3. Regarding private construction, the defense minister will approve no new master plans in isolated settlements, even if the plans have already been approved by the other relevant authorities.
4. Nevertheless, private construction that is legally approved by regional councils in the West Bank will continue. But Netanyahu told Kerry this does not apply to a large number of homes.
5. Israel will deny the existence of any agreement to freeze construction in the settlements.
“You can’t call it a freeze, but you can describe it as a policy of restraint and tighter supervision over construction,” one official said.
“Naftali Bennett, Uri Ariel and the Likud ministers are also aware of this,” he added, referring to two ministers from Habayit Hayehudi.
The officials said Netanyahu will announce the building tenders on Sunday, to make it easier for rightist ministers and the settlers to swallow the announcement of the release of 82 Palestinian prisoners.
The prisoners have been in jail since before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, for involvement in terror attacks that killed Israelis.
Likud ministers Yuval Steinitz and Moshe Ya’alon are expected to support Netanyahu in these moves, as are Yesh Atid’s five ministers, Hatnuah’s two and probably Yitzhak Aharonovitch of Yisrael Beiteinu.
The three Habayit Hayehudi ministers are expected to object, along with three Yisrael Beiteinu ministers. Likud minister Yisrael Katz said he would object, while Gilad Erdan, Gideon Sa’ar, Silvan Shalom and Limor Livnat said they have not yet decided how to vote.
Netanyahu’s agreement to free the first 20 Palestinian prisoners in the next few days made the meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams in Washington possible.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is in charge of talks with the Palestinians, will take part in the session along with Netanyahu’s envoy Isaac Molho. Erekat will attend for the Palestinian side. Kerry will also be present.