On the same day Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about renewed peace talks, an official said that Israel was likely to build more settlements. (Bureau of Public Affairs/State Department)
Israel will likely build more settlements in the West Bank despite renewed peace talks, a State Department official said yesterday. The admission will add to the already ubiquitous skepticism about the renewed peace talks that kicked off earlier this week in Washington, D.C.
An unnamed White House official was joined by a State Department official for a background briefing for reporters yesterday to discuss details surrounding the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Here’s the relevant passage (h/t Josh Ruebner):
QUESTION: Yes. My question is what happens when the Israelis decide to go on and expand settlements, as their behavior has indicated in the past over and over again? Are the Palestinians – have they given any commitment to stay in the talks, or should they walk out of the talks?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, first I would reiterate the United States position on the settlements remains unchanged. We’ve made that very, very clear the parties all the way along. As we’ve said, we hope they will take steps to create a positive atmosphere for negotiations. But I think it’s also safe to say that whereas last time we did an extensive amount of work to create a settlement moratorium or a settlement freeze, we haven’t gone down that path now. And so I think it would be fair to say that you are likely to see Israeli settlement continue – activity continue, and we’ve made our position very clear on that to the Israelis.
The official’s frank admission that Israel will continue to gobble up the West Bank while negotiating was aired the day before it was reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had struck a deal for more settlement building.
Maariv reports today that “Netanyahu has promised to advance construction of thousands of housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” The move was made to “temper Jewish Home’s resistance to the release of over a hundred long-time Palestinian prisoners.” The Jewish Home party had threatened to walk out of the Israeli coalition ruling the government, according to the report.
A spokesman for the Housing Minister, Jewish Home’s Uri Ariel, denied the report. But Haaretz reported last week that Netanyahu told Secretary of State John Kerry that 1,000 building tenders for settlement units will be issued for the major settlement blocs during talks. The State Department now seems to have resigned themselves to that reality.
Many critics of the peace process paradigm have predicted continued Israeli settlement expansion during the renewed talks. “If Israelis and Palestinians are negotiating towards a peace agreement, that takes a lot of pressure off of Israel, and allows them to continue colonization,” said Ruebner, the national advocacy director at the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, in a radio interview I conducted over the weekend.
Past periods of high-level peace talks have seen the continued expansion of settlements. When the Oslo peace process was in its hey-day, in the 1990s, Israeli settlement expansion increased. The number of settlers doubled from 1993-2001–when peace talks collapsed.
And in fact, Netanyahu admitted in 2001 that the peace process was no impediment to continued settlement expansion. In an exchange that was caught on camera, Netanyahu told settlers that while prime minister in the 1990s, he said he interpreted “the accords in such a way that would allow me to put an end to this galloping forward to the ’67 borders. How did we do it? Nobody said what defined military zones were. Defined military zones are security zones; as far as I’m concerned, the entire Jordan Valley is a defined military zone.”
What’s old is new again in peace process land.