Israel moved forward on plans announced last week to build 3,500 units beyond the Green Line, with the Construction and Housing Ministry announcing Sunday – just two days before US Secretary of State John Kerry’s scheduled visit – the marketing of 1,728 of those units.

Kerry, while in Egypt, responding to a question about settlement building during a press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, said that “the settlements have disturbed people’s perceptions of whether or not people are serious, and we’re moving in the right direction.”

Kerry then added something not generally heard publicly from senior US officials – that he was also aware of “tensions at the Haram al-Sharif [Temple Mount], and I know that doesn’t sit well in the [Muslim] community.”

Kerry is scheduled to arrive in Israel late Tuesday, and meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem on Wednesday. In addition, he will meet with Saudi King Abdullah on Monday, before arriving in Israel, and with Jordan’s King Abdullah II after his trip here.

“I am hopeful that in the next months we can make progress and I ask people everywhere to keep their minds open, to speak the language of peace, not hatred, not war, not continued division, but the possibilities of what peace can bring to everybody,” Kerry said. “I believe there is an ability to move forward, but we have to remain calm and dedicated and committed to a quiet process by which difficult decisions can be discussed.”

Even amid rumors that the Palestinians would walk away from the talks because of the announcement of plans for new construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, a senior State Department official said the two sides met twice last week and would meet again before Kerry’s arrival.

The official said that the pace of the talks “has intensified,” and that US envoy Martin Indyk has been participating in “many” of the meetings.

Summarizing the current status of the process, the official said the parties remain “focused on our goal of achieving a permanent agreement which ends the conflict and all claims, and creates peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. All final status issues remain on the table, and the role of the United States continues to be to facilitate the talks.”

Dueling comments made by Netanyahu and the PA over the last two days regarding the Balfour Declaration, however, leave a less sanguine impression about where things are headed.

A day after the PA called the Balfour Declaration “a crime against humanity” and called upon Britain to apologize for it, Netanyahu said the Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish people’s right to a homeland is the root of the ongoing conflict.

The Balfour Declaration, a letter written 96 years ago on November 2 by British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour to Baron Rothschild, called for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.

“That declaration recognized the right of the Jewish people to its own homeland in Israel,” Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. “There is no doubt that international recognition of the Jewish people’s right to its own state in its historic homeland is important; the refusal to recognize us is the root of the conflict.”

Netanyahu said that in order for there to be peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the Palestinians needed to recognize the Jewish people’s right to a state in its homeland.

This means that in a final-status agreement they will need to relinquish their so-called right of return and all other claims on Israel, he added.

The Saudi Gazette reported that on Saturday, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the Palestinian Ministry of Information issued a statement saying the Palestinian people were “paying the price of the biggest political crime in contemporary history,” and that the declaration was “a mark of shame on humanity.”

The ministry said that the declaration “began the Zionists’ process of ethnically cleansing the Palestinians from their homeland, which continues until today.”

It added that “Britain and the entire world must recognize the usurped Palestinian rights because everything that has befallen Palestine – it’s partition, the aggression, the suppression, the settlements, the arrests, the separation wall, the siege on Gaza, and the millions of Palestinians living in exile – was made possible because of the Balfour Declaration.”

The Palestinian Information Ministry’s English website on Thursday wrote that the Balfour Declaration “continues to serve as the bases for a racial discrimination system forcibly inflicted on Palestine and the Palestinians putting former South Africa Apartheid regime to shame.

“To add injury to the insult,” the statement continued, “many of the superpowers continue supporting the Israeli occupation to the cradle of Christianity and sacred shrines of Islam, an occupation disgraced with flagrant violations to human rights and democracy.”

No mention was made of Israel’s importance to Judaism.

Netanyahu did not refer to the Palestinian statement during his comments Sunday to the cabinet. He did stress, however, that any agreement with the Palestinians would necessitate the Jordan River remaining Israel’s “security border.”

Israel’s demand that the IDF retain a security presence along the Jordan River is believed to be one of the major sticking points in the current negotiations with the Palestinians.

While Israeli officials say that both the US and the Palestinians were aware that Israel would announce settlement construction plans each time a batch of Palestinian prisoners was released, as was the case last week, Peace Now executive director Yariv Oppenheimer said the current announcements showed the government was not serious about a two-state solution.

“Israel’s government is spitting in the face of US Secretary of State John Kerry by publishing a large wave of tenders in the settlements on the eve of his visit,” he said. “Netanyahu has proven that in the conflict between [Bayit Yehudi head Naftali] Bennett and [Hatnua head Tzipi] Livni, he has chosen Bennett,” Oppenheimer said.

Netanyahu, speaking to Likud ministers before the cabinet meeting, said Israel was honoring all the understandings that were reached in the framework of beginning talks with the Palestinians, and that the Palestinians knew “very well that Israel would build during the negotiations.”

The current stir over the settlement construction plans, he said, was an “attempt to create an artificial crisis.”

In Egypt, Kerry acknowledged that Netanyahu was indeed carrying out what was agreed upon, saying that, “to his credit,” Netanyahu was “working to try to make sure that the rules and the understandings are applied in the appropriate way, and we all need to try to give this negotiation the space that it needs for the leaders to be able to make some very difficult decisions.”

Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Bayit Yehudi) divorced the settlement construction announcements from the diplomatic process, placing the building within the context of larger plans to put up homes throughout all of Israel. He explained that the construction would help ensure that the number of housing starts would outpace demand and thus reduce housing prices.

According to the ministry, 698 of the units announced Sunday will be marketed in Jewish neighborhoods beyond the pre-1967 lines in Jerusalem, including 387 homes in Ramat Shlomo and another 311 units Gilo.

In addition, the ministry said it plans to build 1,032 new homes in West Bank settlements, most of which are close to the pre-1967 lines and, or within settlement blocs that Israel plans to retain in any final-status agreement with the Palestinians.

This includes 284 units slated for Elkana, 196 for Karnei Shomron, 114 homes for Ma’aleh Adumim, 102 for Givat Ze’ev and 80 in Geva Binyamin – all communities within 10 km. of the Green Line.

In addition 238 homes will be marketed in Betar Illit, which is less than 1/2 a kilometer from the pre-1967 lines.

The furthest settlement to get new units will be Ariel – located some 16 km. from the Green Line – which is to get 18 new units.

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