Peace talks expose deep rifts

Economy Minister Bennett leading Israeli backlash against negotiations


The talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are not yet under way but a major split is already emerging within the Israeli government.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has announced that Israel will soon resume widespread building in East Jerusalem, a step that many believe could derail the talks.

A firm date for the first round of talks in the region between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators has not yet been announced, although the original plan was for them to take place next week in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given his backing to the negotiations, which will be led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. He also secured a majority in the cabinet for the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners, most of whom had been sentenced to life in prison for murder as part of the confidence-building measures before the talks.

But the more right-wing elements of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition, who opposed the talks, are not standing by idly.

we [the Jewish Home party] will not be partners in a government that freezes our land - Economy Minister Naftali Bennett

Mr Bennett said in an interview on Sunday that “within days” new tenders for building in East Jerusalem would be issued and that they would be “in good proportions”. He added that “we [the Jewish Home party] will not be partners in a government that freezes our land”.

It is still unclear whether Mr Bennett’s statements are based on actual building plans. While the government has not officially frozen building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a trickle of permits for new construction have been issued in the past six months.

Officials at the Housing Ministry confirmed that all new projects must receive authorisation from the Prime Minister’s Office — which has not been forthcoming — and that at present, the tenders for building 2,500 new homes in East Jerusalem, which were prepared before the new government came into office, are still on hold.

Sources at Jerusalem City Hall also said that they did not know what Mr Bennett was referring to.

Mr Bennett is currently under fire within his own party after failing to prevent the government’s return to the peace talks and the release of Palestinian prisoners. Mr Bennett’s statement was made to Arutz Sheva, the settlers’ news organisation, and was seen by some Jewish Home members as an attempt by the still relatively new party leader to shore up support.

Meanwhile, the government has tried in other ways to assuage the concerns of the right. On Sunday, the cabinet voted in favour of an updated “national priority area” list which includes underprivileged towns and villages where residents can receive mortgages at preferential rates and local authorities receive additional budgets. The new list includes 20 new locations, eight of which are settlements.

Even if the talks proceed and yield an Israeli-Palestinian agreement within nine months, as US State Secretary John Kerry promised, it will be an uphill struggle convincing Israelis to vote for it in a referendum.

Meanwhile, the “Peace Index” project of the Tel-Aviv University and Israel Democracy Institute, which has been measuring public opinion on the peace process for nearly 20 years, detected growing opposition to a deal among Israelis. An agreement that includes a pull-back from the West Bank to the pre-1967 borders, with territory swaps that would allow Israel to hold on to the main settlement blocs was rejected by 63 per cent of Israelis sampled.

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