The Housing Ministry is expected to publish tenders for the construction of hundreds of new homes in West Bank settlements next week.
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A senior government official said publication of the tenders would coincide with the release of about 25 Palestinian prisoners, the second of four such groups slated to be freed over the course of the current Israeli-Palestinian talks.
The tenders will all be for construction in the major settlement blocs and East Jerusalem. The senior government official stressed that the understandings that led to the resumption of the talks in late July did not include any Israeli commitment to freeze construction in the settlements.
During his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu briefed him about the plan to publish the new tenders. The Palestinians have also apparently been apprised of the plan.
Netanyahu is hoping to use publication of the new tenders to blunt the expected right-wing protests against freeing the prisoners. Several recent incidents in which Israelis were killed or wounded in West Bank attacks have intensified opposition in the cabinet to the prisoner release.
On Thursday, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon sent a letter to all cabinet ministers arguing against the prisoner release. Families of the people killed by the prisoners slated for release are also ramping up their protest campaign.
Netanyahu was disappointed that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas didn’t unambiguously denounce the recent murders of Israelis. Nevertheless, the senior government official said, the prime minister has no intention of delaying the prisoner release, since Israel committed to the release as part of the understandings that led to resumption of the talks. These understandings require Israel to free a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners who were involved in the murder of Israelis and have been in jail since before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. The prisoners will be freed in four groups, of which next week’s will be the second.
On Sunday, a ministerial committee is expected to approve the names of those to be freed in the current group. The list will then be published, after which opponents will have 48 hours to petition the High Court of Justice against the release. Assuming that the court rejects these petitions swiftly, as it has in the past, the prisoners will be freed on Tuesday.
Senior members of Habayit Hayehudi opposed Netanyahu's decision to publish the tenders in conjunction with the release of prisoners. "The attempt to tie in the release of murderers is cynical and morally repugnant," party members said. "It would be better if he didn't release murderers and didn't build. This seems like a contemptible attempt to both release murderers and to blacken the settlement program."
Coinciding with these statements, the party announced that it would bring a measure against the release of Palestinian prisoners to a vote at the Ministerial Committee on Legislation meeting on Sunday, with the cooperation of coalition leader MK Yariv Levin (Likud).
"The release of terrorists in return for the questionable privilege of Tzipi Livni meeting with Saeb Erekat is a very serious matter," Habayit Hayehudi party officials said. "With all due respect, the thwarting of the release of murderers is more important than the justifying of Livni's place in the government. We are expecting that this time too Likud ministers support the measure."