News sources in Israel are reporting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to announce new construction in Judea and Samaria to coincide with the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners next week. This move has been strongly discouraged by several bodies, including the US, the UN and the Palestinians themselves, however, peace talks are still scheduled to continue.
According to an unnamed Israeli official, “The Israeli government will announce tenders for new construction in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem which will coincide with the release of a third group of Palestinian prisoners.”
The upcoming prisoner release is part of a US-brokered arrangement in which Israel would release 104 Palestinian prisoners, most held for terrorist activities prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords, in four stages. In exchange, the Palestinian Authority agreed to return to the bargaining table to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel. US Secretary of State John Kerry is responsible for the deal and is overseeing the negotiations.
Following the first two prisoner releases, in August and October, similar construction announcements were made, also prompting condemnation. However, building did not scuttle the peace talks.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon hinted at the expected announcement, saying, “I think it is our right to build, certainly according to our understandings and agreements with the Americans. And in accordance with that, we shall continue to build.”
Meanwhile, PA Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs Issa Karake told Maariv on Thursday, “Unlike the release of prisoners, which advances peace talks and creates hope that a [peace] agreement can be reached, the building of settlements scuttles the possibility of moving forward [with negotiations].” He added, “It’s clear to everyone now that the Israeli government is killing the peace process.”
Israel’s Channel 10 News put the expected number of new housing units at 1,000-2,000.
All of this comes at a time when Palestinian terror against Israeli targets is on the rise. With a foiled bus bombing Sunday, rocket fire early Monday, and a sniper attack Tuesday, many have called for the Israeli government to cancel next week’s scheduled prisoner release.
The PA has yet to issue a condemnation of Tuesday’s attack, which killed a civilian worker, 22-year-old Salah Shukri Abu Latif. This prompted criticism from an official spokesperson for PM Netanyahu. “We are disappointed that so far Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] has not condemned these acts as we would expect from someone who is supposed to be a partner in peace talks,” wrote spokesman Ofir Gendelman on Twitter.
According to Ya’alon, the decision to release the prisoners anyway “stems from broader considerations.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party was not pushing for the construction announcement. According to Israel’s Channel 2 News, the party feels the linkage of prisoner releases to West Bank settlement construction is damaging to the settlement enterprise. The party therefore chose to stay out of the discussion, so if the construction goes ahead, it would be at the personal choice of Netanyahu.