Israel peace talks on verge of collapse after new settlement homes announced
Israel seemed to have led Palestinian peace talks to the brink of collapse on Monday after it unveiled plans to build 1,300 new homes for Jewish settlers in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem.
By Adrian Blomfield in Jerusalem 7:18PM GMT 08 Nov 2010
The surprise announcement earned the immediate condemnation of the Palestinian leadership and dealt a serious blow to hopes for reviving peace talks, frozen for the past six weeks because of a row over settlements.
It also represented a spectacularly poor piece of timing since Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli
prime minister, was on a visit to the United States. The announcement revived memories of a bitter diplomatic dispute with the US that erupted in March when plans to build 1,600 settler homes in a different part of East Jerusalem emerged.
The earlier announcement coincided with a trip to Israel by Joe Biden, the US vice president, who was trying to resurrect peace talks.
Monday’s announcement prompted a furious reaction from the chief Palestinian negotiator. “We thought that Netanyahu was going to the United States to stop settlement activity and restart negotiations but it is clear to us that he is determined to destroy the talks,” Saeb Erakat said. “He has shut all the doors to negotiations and we hold him responsible for destroying them.”
The White House made no immediate response and it is not known whether US officials were briefed on the matter in advance.
Mr Netanyahu’s government was unrepentant. It defended its right to build in “Jewish neighbourhoods” that it insisted would remain part of Israel under any deal with Palestinians over territory. “Building in these neighbourhoods in no way contradicts the desire to move ahead for peace based on a two-state solution,” an Israeli government official said.
The Palestinian leadership had agreed to give the US until later this month to try to persuade Mr Netanyahu to extend a partial settlement moratorium. The decision to build anew was evidence, Palestinians said, that Mr Netanyahu was playing “a game of deceit”.
“It’s just another nail,” said Husam Zomlot, a senior Palestinian official. “We’ve tried to buy time and give more space to international players – particularly the United States – to change Israeli policies but the Israelis are adamant that they will continue the land grab and choose settlements over peace.”
Israel’s interior ministry sought to play down the development, saying the decision to build had actually been taken six months ago. Its disclosure was only forced because of a legal requirement, a spokesman said.
But the explanation is unlikely to have much sway, Israeli observers said. “Legally it’s possible, diplomatically it’s foolish and politically it’s suicidal,” said Alon Pinkas, a former senior Israeli diplomat with close ties to the United States.
Critics also pointed out that the decision to build was still taken after Israeli assurances were widely assumed to have been given to avoid further construction in East Jerusalem.
The announcement overshadowed Mr Netanyahu’s attempts to use his American trip to switch the diplomatic focus from settlements to Iran. The prime minister called on the US to threaten military action against Iran after asserting that sanctions had failed to persuade Tehran to give up its nuclear programme.