Israel could be about to embark on a major building project in West Bank settlements, just a day after the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, announced that peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians were back on track.
Reports in the Israeli media today suggested that in return for getting his plan to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners accepted by the cabinet on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a demand from the right-wing Jewish Home party to increase building activity in the Occupied Territories.
According to the Ma’ariv newspaper, a secret deal between Mr Netanyahu and Israel’s Housing Minister, Uri Ariel, of the Jewish Home party was struck, which persuaded the right-wing party to remain in the coalition. The agreement included measures for the imminent approval for 1,000 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The report also said that permission would be later granted for a further 3,500 to 4,000 new homes.
The West Bank and East Jerusalem are both considered occupied territories under international law. Settlements remain one of the biggest obstacles to a lasting peace plan between the two sides. The issue will be one of the most contentious in the upcoming talks between the two sides and any final resolution is likely to include an agreement that certain settlements remain as part of a land swap deal.
In 2010, the last time the two sides held face-to-face talks, the Israeli government agreed to a moratorium on construction. Palestinian officials claim that there are so many settlements in the West Bank that their presence now threatens the very possibility of a contiguous future state.
Ma’ariv reported that due to the sensitive nature of the agreement, it was struck after an exchange of sealed letters. It is understood that the deal allowed for Jewish Home members of the cabinet to vote against the prisoner release measure, but in public to downplay their opposition.
Leading members of Jewish Home agreed to stay in the coalition on condition that Mr Netanyahu kept his promise on settlement construction. “The test will be if Netanyahu doesn’t honour the agreements on construction in the next few months,” party officials were reported as saying. “This is our yardstick, and we will decide on our next steps according to this alone.” A spokesman for Mr Netanyahu declined to comment.
It has subsequently been reported that Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party, allegedly said during the meeting that, “if you catch terrorists, you have to simply kill them.” According to the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Israel’s National Security Adviser, Ya’akov Amidror responded by saying that such a practice was illegal. Mr Bennett then reportedly said: “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life – and there’s no problem with that.”
Mr Netanyahu came under a barrage of domestic criticism for the decision to release the prisoners – most of them convicted of terrorism offences by Israel - but managed to win the vote in the cabinet with relative ease. Palestinian officials said that they would not return to the negotiating table unless the prisoner release demand was met.
Mr Netanyahu admitted that the decision was “painful” but insisted it was necessary to move the peace process forward. It is expected that a substantive meeting will be held between the two sides in the coming weeks.