Even as Israel readies to release just over two-dozen Palestinian prisoners ahead of Wednesday's scheduled peace talks, the country's Sunday announcement that Israel will move forward with construction of 1,200 settlement homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has overshadowed — and might derail — the first round of direct Israel-Palestine peace talks since 2010.
Israel's Housing Minister Uri Ariel answered criticism of the plan, both from Palestinians and from opposition parties within Israel, by arguing that "No country in the world will accept dictates from other countries where it is allowed to build and where not to," adding, "This is the right thing to do, both in Zionist and economic terms." The Israeli settlements, planned for portions of the land that Palestine would like to use to construct a state based on the 1967 borders, are widely considered illegal under international law. They're also the same topic that stopped the last round of peace talks in 2010. At the announcement of the current round of talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that Israel would slow — but not freeze — settlement construction as talks continued.
Because of the announced settlement plans, the third settlement-advancing announcement this week, Palestine might not show up to the U.S.-brokered peace talks scheduled to start Wednesday. "We may not come," an unnamed Palestinian official told the Christian Science Monitor, adding, "Approving such a massive number of housing units three days before we go to negotiations is sick." But Palestine's refusal to participate is far from a sure thing: While Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's participation in talks so soon after a major settlement announcement would be politically unpopular with the leader, so would, potentially, being the one to pull out of the talks in the first place.
Meanwhile, Palestine doesn't seem to be really happy with Israel's plans to release over 100 long-term prisoners in stages as the talks continue. Israel announced a group of 26 to be released as the talks begin, but according to Haaretz, later rounds of released prisoners could be sent to Gaza — not allowed to return to their West Bank families, or to another country altogether. The prisoner release, along with a settlement freeze, were two long-time conditions from Abbas for Palestine's return to direct talks. Earlier this summer, Abbas agreed to give up the latter in exchange for the former moving forward. The prisoner releases are extremely unpopular in Israel, as most of the population regards the prisoners, who were jailed before the 1993 Oslo peace accords, as terrorists (by contrast, many Palestinians see them as political prisoners).
Both the U.S. and Palestine would like to use the 1967 borders as a starting point for talks: that's before Israel captured Gaza, and Sinai in Egypt; East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, and Syria's Golan Heights. But Israel would like to keep most of the settlements they've built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in any peace deal. A majority of the population in Israel opposes using the 1967 starting point even with some swaps to allow Israel to keep some settlements, something Palestine is reportedly open to discussing, if they even get to the table at all at this point.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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