Chief Palestinian Negotiator to Kerry: Israeli Settlement Expansion Could Derail Peace Talks

Saeb Erekat refrains from threatening boycott of the talks, while Palestinian officials claim Israel's plans for new settlement construction adds to the already heavy pressure on the PA.

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With a second round of Israeli-Palestinian talks slated to take place next week, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat yesterday sent a furious letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry demanding that he stop Israel from moving forward on plans for new settlement construction.

Erekat did not threaten to boycott the talks, but warned that unless settlement expansion is stopped, he finds it hard to see how negotiations can “bring about progress towards a peace agreement.” The letter details several plans that Israel announced this week, including construction of 63 housing units in East Jerusalem’s Jabal Mukkaber neighborhood; construction of 878 units in various West Bank settlements, almost all of them outside the major settlement blocs; and the cabinet’s decision to include additional settlements on Israel’s list of national priority areas, which will entitle them to various benefits.

Claiming that the settlements violate both the Geneva Convention and Israel’s obligations under the Oslo Accords, Erekat termed these announcements evidence of “Israel’s bad faith and lack of seriousness,” as well as a direct slap in the face to Washington’s mediation efforts. He therefore urged Kerry to “take the necessary action to ensure that Israel does not advance any of its settlement plans, and abides by its legal obligations and commitments.”

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO’s executive committee, also urged Kerry yesterday to take “real action” against Israel, which she accused of “openly disrupting” his peacemaking efforts. In a press statement, she charged that Israel was “deliberately destroying the two-state solution and killing any sort of hope,” and warned that “in absence of a clear international response, our duty is to protect our land and our people with the rightful tools of international legitimacy we have gained through statehood.”

A senior Palestinian official explained that the Palestinian leadership is already under heavy pressure from its public for having agreed to resume direct talks with Israel with no guarantee that they will bear any fruit, and the announcement of the new settlement construction merely increases this pressure.

“The secretary of state must now prove that the administration in Washington is an unbiased mediator and patron, and isn’t bowing to Israeli dictates,” he said.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that Washington “does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity” and has taken up the issue with Israel.

The State Department announced yesterday that the next round of talks will take place on August 14 at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. The first batch of 26 Palestinian prisoners, of a total of 104 that Israel has agreed to free during the course of the talks, is also slated to be released next week.

Also yesterday, Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank approved construction plans for the 878 new housing units that Erekat cited in his letter. Discussion of some of these plans had been temporarily postponed after Kerry first announced the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Most of the plans approved yesterday had been previously approved by the government at earlier stages of the planning process, and all still require further approvals before construction can begin.

Inter alia, the Civil Administration validated the construction of 95 new residential units in Shiloh. Validation is the final stage of approval in the administration’s planning council, but the plan must still be approved by the Defense Ministry before the units can be built and sold.

The planning council also retroactively approved 17 units in Shiloh that Amana, the settlement movement’s construction arm, had already begun to build, apparently without permits. The High Court of Justice had issued an interim injunction against this construction in response to a petition, and the police then launched a criminal investigation. Nevertheless, the state continued to push for approval.

Another 559 residential units were retroactively approved in Talmon, including 304 in the settlement's northern neighborhood of Zayit Ra’anan. That neighborhood has about 30 buildings at present, only 10 of them legally constructed. The remaining 255 units are slated for Talmon’s Nahalei Tal neighborhood, which currently consists of empty fields.

The other plans approved on Thursday include 38 units in Kokhav Ya’akov; 78 units on Kibbutz Gilgal in the Jordan Valley, which would enlarge that community by 50 percent; 31 units in Almog, near the Dead Sea; and 60 units in Alon Shvut, which is part of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.

Kerry, Livni and Erekat at the State Department in Washington for start of peace talks, July 30, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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