Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned Tuesday that he would declare the peace process over unless Israel cancels tenders for nearly 20,000 settler homes.
The tender announcement was the largest ever made by Israel in the occupied West Bank, settlement watchdog Peace Now said, and threatened to add sharply to the 550,000 Israeli settlers already living in the territory, including occupied East Jerusalem.
It was the latest blow to the U.S.-brokered peace talks, which have made no visible progress since they were launched over the summer and have become deadlocked amid disputes over Israeli settlement construction. U.S. officials said they were blindsided by the announcement and demanded an explanation.
The Housing Ministry said it was recruiting architectural firms to look into possible construction of some 600,000 homes nationwide to ease a housing crunch. It refused to say how many of these homes were in Jewish settlements. But Peace Now said the plans included a record nearly 20,000 apartments in the West Bank and 4,000 in East Jerusalem.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said he had called the United States, Russia, the European Union, the United Nations and the Arab League to voice his objections.
“I informed them that if Israel implements this decision, then this means the end of the negotiations and the end of the peace process,” Erekat said, adding that this was the position of Abbas.
Erakat said if Israel did not relent on its settlement drive, the Palestinians would also resume their applications for state membership of international bodies, ending a moratorium they agreed to in July under U.S. pressure.
The Palestinians claim the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip for an independent state. The international community, including the U.S., rejects settlements as illegal or illegitimate.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the White House had been caught off guard by the Israeli move.
“We were surprised by these announcements, and are currently seeking further explanation from the government of Israel,” she said.
“Our position on settlements is quite clear – we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity. We’ve called on both sides to take steps to create a positive atmosphere for the negotiations,” she added.
Several Israeli officials have claimed the settlement announcements have been in keeping with tacit “understandings” between the two sides linked to the release of 52 veteran Palestinian prisoners since August.
But the Palestinians deny any such agreement exists, a position backed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories last week.
Kerry warned Israel Thursday it needed to choose between settlements and peace, adding failure to reach agreement could trigger a Palestinian uprising.
“How, if you say you’re working for peace ... can you say we’re planning to build in the place that will eventually be Palestine? So it sends a message that somehow perhaps you’re not really serious.”
Israeli officials tried to play down the announcement. They said the homes were part of a long-range feasibility study and any construction was years away.
Among the plans are 1,500 units in an area outside of Jerusalem known as E1. The Palestinians have said the project would be devastating to their dreams of independence, as it would separate the West Bank from East Jerusalem, their hoped-for capital, and drive a wedge between the north and south of the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the Israeli leader had ordered the ministry to put the E1 plan on hold due to the extreme sensitivity.
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