Palestinian officials have reacted angrily to reports that Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu will announce new settlement construction next week, coinciding with Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners.
The Israeli move comes despite requests from Washington and leading European Union states not to link the two issues. Wasil Abu Yousif, a Palestinian official, said the expected announcement is evidence Israel is “not serious” about pursuing peace.
“It’s clear to everyone now that the Israeli government is killing the peace process,” he said, warning Israel’s policy would force the Palestinians to seek “more substantial alternatives”.
In July, in return for the Palestinians agreeing to resume bilateral peace talks brokered by the US, Israel promised to release 104 veteran Palestinian prisoners in four phases over the nine-month negotiation process. Sunday’s release of 26 will mark the third phase.
Threat to talks
The two previous releases coincided with announcements by Mr Netanyahu of more building in West Bank settlements, almost causing the Palestinians to walk out of the negotiations.
According to Israeli media reports, Mr Netanyahu will announce the construction of 1,400 new settler homes next week, including more than 600 in the Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Ramat Shlomo, built on land that was captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War.
On Wednesday, the Israeli security cabinet, chaired by Mr Netanyahu, decided not to postpone the prisoner release, despite calls to do so by key cabinet ministers, following an upsurge in militant attacks.
US secretary of state John Kerry and EU states had urged Israel on this occasion not to link the prisoner release with an announcement on settlement building.
The Ma'ariv newspaper quoted an unnamed senior official as saying Mr Netanyahu had initially agreed a US call to delay the announcement of the new construction until after the prisoner releases.
However, he changed his mind under pressure from his coalition partners so as not to send out a “signal of weakness” to the Palestinians.
The Yediot Aharonot newspaper yesterday reported the existence of a secret back channel between Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas that has been in place for a number of years.
Lawyer Yitzhak Molcho, Mr Netanyahu’s close confident, reportedly meets regularly in London with Mr Abbas’s associates, and one of the aims of the discussions is to lay the groundwork for a big political breakthrough. It was not clear from the report if progress has been made towards breaking the diplomatic impasse.