Israeli Move Over Housing Poses a Threat to Peace Talks
By Jodi Rudoren, NY Times, November 12, 2013
JERUSALEM—The troubled Middle East peace talks that started this summer threatened to collapse on Tuesday over what the Israeli government described as a routine bureaucratic move by its housing ministry to start long-term planning for 20,000 new apartments in West Bank settlements.
Saeb Erekat, the lead Palestinian negotiator, said in an interview that he had informed American, European, Russian and Arab diplomats on Tuesday evening that if Israel did not withdraw the call for new housing plans, “we will consider it a declaration of the termination of negotiations.”
"This is not going to be tolerated," Mr. Erekat said. "Either they revoke this order or they will be held responsible for the end of the peace process."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel released a statement near midnight saying he had instructed the housing minister to reconsider the plans, noting that they had not been coordinated with his office. Earlier, Mr. Netanyahu froze construction plans related to a particularly contentious area outside Jerusalem known as E1 for fear of exacerbating tensions with the United States, which had escalated in recent days because of deep disagreements about both settlement construction and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
The tempest erupted after days of unusually harsh public statements by Mr. Netanyahu and Secretary of State John Kerry, and revealed the internal political challenges Mr. Netanyahu faces in trying to control members of his own government, including the housing minister, who oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state.
It is unclear whether the review of the settlement plans, which the housing minister agreed to, would satisfy the Palestinians, who scheduled an emergency leadership meeting for Wednesday and were considering taking the matter to the United Nations Security Council or the International Criminal Court. A second Palestinian negotiator, Muhammad Shtayyeh, submitted his resignation from the peace talks on Tuesday.
Mr. Erekat had earlier dismissed as “not serious” the insistence by the prime minister’s office that the housing announcement was only an expression of long-term goals, not a decision to actually build. “This chain of lies must stop,” he said. “This is a government of the settlers, by the settlers and for the settlers.”
American officials were working with both sides to contain the crisis. Before Mr. Netanyahu’s order to reconsider the move, a White House spokeswoman said the Obama administration was “deeply concerned” about it, adding, “We do not consider settlement planning, even in its early stages, to be a step that creates a positive environment for the negotiations.”
During a visit here last week aimed at regaining momentum in the stalled talks, Mr. Kerry had criticized Israel’s continued construction in the settlements.
"If you say you’re working for peace and you want peace and a Palestine that is a whole Palestine that belongs to the people who live there, how can you say, ‘We’re planning to build in the place that will eventually be Palestine’? " Mr. Kerry said in a joint television interview with Israeli and Palestinian journalists. "It sends a message that somehow, perhaps, you’re not really serious. If you announce planning, I believe it is disruptive to the process."
Relations between the United States and Israel have only deteriorated since, with Mr. Netanyahu relentlessly criticizing the interim deal Mr. Kerry had been trying to broker in which Iran would freeze much of its nuclear program in exchange for an easing of some economic sanctions. “There is no need to rush into a bad deal,” the prime minister reiterated on Tuesday.
Ariel Rosenberg, a spokesman for the Housing Ministry, said earlier in the day, before Mr. Netanyahu’s admonition to reconsider the construction plans, that Israel would build “all over the country.”