Israel increased settlement work fourfold during the latest round of peace talks, pushing ahead with the construction of nearly 14,000 homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a watchdog group has said.
Peace Now issued its statistics as a nine-month negotiating period between Israel and the Palestinians came to a close. The group cited Israel’s construction surge as a key reason for the failure.
US Secretary of State John Kerry had envisioned brokering a final peace agreement when he brought the sides together last July. But talks made no progress and were characterised by a lack of trust, in large part because of continued Israeli construction in captured territories claimed by the Palestinians.
The Palestinians seek the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, along with the Gaza Strip, for an independent state. They say Israeli construction is a sign of bad faith.
Israel captured all three areas in 1967, although it withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Today, more than 550,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, making it more difficult to divide the territory.
Mr Kerry sparked uproar in Israel after warning in a closed forum that it could become an “apartheid state” if it doesn’t reach a peace deal with the Palestinians. On Monday, he sought to clarify his use of language, saying he was only expressing his belief that creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel was the only viable way to end the long-running conflict.
Most demographers believe the Arab population of Israel, along with the West Bank and Gaza, will soon outnumber the Jewish population. Without a two-state solution, Israel’s position as a democracy with a Jewish majority could be in jeopardy.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on Mr Kerry’s remarks. But Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, criticised them. “Shame on you Kerry! There are words that mustn’t be said,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
According to Peace Now, Israel promoted plans or issued tenders for construction of 13,851 homes during the talks. These included tenders, or bids for construction, of 4,868 homes, nearly half in the West Bank alone.
The group said the number of tenders, including earlier bids that were reissued, was more than quadruple the average level of construction of the previous two Israeli governments. And citing government figures, the number of housing starts in the second half of 2013, some 828 new units, was nearly double the level a year earlier.
Peace Now said the settlement activity was “destructive for the American efforts” and undermined trust. “It also created facts on the ground that proved more than anything else that the Netanyahu government did not mean to go for a two-state solution” and instead tried to strengthen Israeli control over occupied territory.
Settlement construction was one of several obstacles that emerged during the negotiations.
The Palestinians said Israel failed to present proposals on key issues, such as the final borders between Israel and a future Palestine. Israel also refused to carry out a release of long-serving Palestinian prisoners that it had promised at the outset of the talks.