Israel delayed advancing plans for new settler homes as a public relations gesture to focus international public opinion on the Fatah Hamas unity deal as the true stumbling block to peace.
“If we were to declare that we had advanced plans [for new settler homes] now, it would distract attention away from the issue of Hamas,” an Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
Last week Israel suspended negotiating with the Palestinians to protest Fatah’s unity with Hamas, a terrorist group that has refused to recognize Israel or renounce violence against it.
It’s important to maintain the focus on the problem of negotiating with a terrorist group and not sideline the situation with news of more building plans that would only make the international community point a finger at Israel, the official said.
The delay was first publicized by Army Radio and the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea and Samaria.
According to its deputy head Yigal Dilmoni Wednesday’s meeting of the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria was canceled on orders from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Typically, Dilmoni said, his council receives the agenda in advance of any meeting on building plans.
But when the agenda failed to arrive by Monday morning, the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea and Samaria became concerned and started making inquiries, he said.
Dilmoni said that the officials they spoke to explained that the timing was bad for such a meeting because Israel didn’t want the frozen talks to be blamed on settlement activity.
By now, Dilmoni said, his council is used to watching diplomacy interfere with what should be a normative planning process for the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.
The council had been gearing up to fight a potential freeze on building plans and tenders for new settler homes that would likely have been imposed if the negotiations had been extended, Dilmoni said. The breakdown of the talks last week, should have removed any threat of a freeze.
So he was surprised, he said, that now, in the absence of negotiations, Netanyahu was delaying the advancement out of a need to appease international opinion.
“There is no reason for this to be happening,” he said.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told the Post at a press briefing that the US considers settlement building to be illegitimate and that it caused serious problems during the negotiations.
If activity were to cease that would be a “good step,” she said.
“But I’m not going to overstate the benefit of a delay of a meeting,” Psaki said.
To underscore the extent of the ongoing settlement activity, Peace Now published a report on Jewish building in Judea and Samaria, that generated the kind of headlines Israel had hoped to avoid by canceling the meeting of the Higher Planning Council.
The report was published on the day that marked the end of a formal US-led negotiating period that began nine months earlier, in July.
Peace Now said that during that period, tenders were issued for 4,868 homes over the pre- 1967 lines. Out of those, 46% or 2,248 units, were in east Jerusalem and 54%, 2,620, were in West Bank settlements.
In addition, the Civil Administration advanced plans for 8,938 housings units over the Green Line, of which 26%, or 2,422 units, were in east Jerusalem.
The remaining 74% of the plans, or 6,561 units, were for potential homes in West Bank settlements.
Peace Now said only 27% of the plans advanced for settler homes were in the settlement blocs, which Israel believes would remain part of its state in any final status agreement with the Palestinians.
The bulk of the plans, 73%, were for Jewish communities outside those areas, Peace Now said.
It further said that the combined figure of plans and tenders meant that Israel had pushed forward activity on 13,806 units.
The Council of Jewish Communities of Judea and Samaria counter-charged and said that Peace Now was cynically manipulating numbers to support a left-wing political agenda.
Dilmoni said that some of the plans were unlikely to come to fruition for years and that in other cases, the homes already existed but were only now undergoing a permit process.
Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On said the Peace Now report “reveals the face of the rightwing extremist government, which, over nine months of negotiations, gave a middle finger to the American government’s efforts to promote talks and broke records of building in settlements.
“All this happened under the sponsorship of the peace-lovers [Justice Minister] Tzipi Livni and [Finance Minister] Yair Lapid, who promised their voters that they will only sit in the government to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.”
The Palestinians have long charged that settlement activity and Jewish building in east Jerusalem is harmful to the peace process and have demanded Israel halt all such activity.
But Israel has insisted on its right to continue building over the pre-1967 line, including during the nine-month negotiation period that began at the end of July 2013.
To sway the Palestinians to hold direct negotiations with Israel, the government agreed to release 104 prisoners held in Israeli jails for their involvement in terror attacks in which Israeli citizens were killed.
Israel released 78 of those prisoners in three separate releases.
Israel advanced plans and authorized building with each of those releases.
With each building announcement it said that it had never agreed to halt building over the Green Line.
It linked the advancement of building plans and the authorization of units with the release of the Palestinian prisoners.
In March, Israel balked at freeing the final batch of 26 prisoners until it received assurances that the talks would continue beyond the initial April 29 deadline.
The Palestinians instead took unilateral steps to shore up their legal standing as a state and ratified 15 international covenants and treaties. In response, Israel canceled the last prisoner release.
Economic Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) said it was unacceptable to link Jewish building in Judea and Samaria with the release of terrorists.
“Building should continue throughout the country,” he told Efrat Council head Oded Revivi when he met with him on Tuesday, during a trip to the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank.Michael Wilner and Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.