Livni to meet Kerry amid settlement freeze rumors

PMO, construction and housing minister mum on report that PM ordered building tenders for gov't-funded housing projects frozen.

Kerry and Livni 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Kerry and Livni 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is scheduled to meet with United States Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome on Wednesday, amidst rumors that Israel had frozen tenders for some West Bank settlement construction projects as a gesture to the Palestinians to help restart negotiations.
It’s their second such meeting in less than a week. Livni along with the Prime Ministers Office’s special envoy Yitzhak Molcho, met with Kerry in Washington last Thursday.
Kerry is also scheduled to meet with Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh while in Rome.
On Tuesday, Army Radio stated that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Bayit Yehudi) to freeze building tenders for government-funded housing projects in some larger West Bank settlements.
The PM’s Office did not respond to the report. Ariel also refused to confirm it. He told Army Radio that he was not willing to comment on a private conversation with Netanyahu.
“I am not commenting. A minister sits with his prime minister. If they want to go public, they have ways to go public. If they want it stay between them, it will stay between them,” Ariel said.
Chief Palestinian Liberation Organization negotiator Saeb Erekat said that he had not been informed of any moves to curb settlement construction.
“We have not been notified of any changes to Israel’s colonial plans, including ongoing construction in dozens of Israeli settlements in the Occupied State of Palestine, including in and around our occupied capital east Jerusalem,” Erekat said.
Nabil Abu Rdaineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, responded cautiously to the reports.
“A freeze in settlement construction within the 1967 borders and especially Jerusalem are the basis of starting any genuine and serious negotiations,” he said. “We must hear Israel state this policy officially.”
Palestinians have refused to hold direct negotiations with Israel until it halts all settlement activity and Jewish building in east Jerusalem. In an attempt to meet this Palestinian demand, Netanyahu imposed a 10-month moratorium on settler housing starts in the West Bank. But the Palestinians returned to the table only in the last month of the moratorium in September 2010.
When Netanyahu refused to renew the moratorium, the Palestinians halted the talks.
Since then it has been assumed that the Palestinians would not accept as a basis for negotiations, any partial gestures with respect to their demand for a settlement freeze.
“Israel has a clear obligation under international law to immediately cease all settlement activity,” Erekat said.
According to Peace Now’s count, since US President Barack Obama’s visit in March, there have been no new announcements of housing construction in the settlements. New plans have not been approved and new tenders have not been issued, Peace Now said.
However, it noted that this situation did not constitute a settlement freeze.
It cautioned that construction continued, and that what was needed was a full settlement freeze.
Settler sources said they believed the Army Radio report was accurate and referred to housing projects in the settlements of Karnei Shomron, Ariel, Efrat and Givat Ze’ev.
Avi Ro’eh, who heads the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, reached out to Netanyahu who is traveling this week in China. He asked the PMO staff with him to organize a phone conversation with Netanyahu to clarify the matter. But as of press time, no such conversation had occurred.
Herzl Ben-Ari, Karnei Shomron council head, said that to his sorrow, the Army Radio report was true. He has been waiting since January, he said, for the publication of tenders for 250 new homes in his settlement.
Each time he’s contacted the Defense Ministry and the Construction and Housing Ministry, he’s been told that the tenders are completed and are waiting only for authorization from the upper echelons, said Ben-Ari.
He had understood from this that Netanyahu had held up publication of the tenders, Ben- Ari said.
He added that he had been told the problem was diplomatic and not technical. First it was the visit of Obama, then Kerry, and now again, that Livni is going to meet with Kerry.
“It’s another de-facto freeze,” he said. “I do not understand why the government publicly states we’ll build, and then privately reneges,” he said.
“The international community has already condemned them for these homes, and in the end they are not building them,” he said.
Oded Revivi, Efrat council head, however, told The Jerusalem Post, that to date he knew of no projects in his settlement that had been frozen nor did he believe that they would be.
So far, he said, “it’s business as usual. We are definitely worried that a freeze could happen, but politically I do not see the Likud or Bayit Yehudi falling into the trap of another freeze,” Revivi said.
Ma’aleh Adumim mayor Benny Kashriel said he hoped the Army Radio story was simply a rumor. However, he continued to note the E1 project of 3,500 new homes slated on an un-built area of his settlement remained frozen in spite of Netanyahu’s promises to advance the project.
Palestinians have threatened to attempt to sue Israel before the International Criminal Court if it advanced the E1 project.
Separately, on Tuesday night settler leaders held their first meeting with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon since he took office in March.
“We met a defense minister who is principled and Zionist and recognizes the importance of the settlements and is attentive to security issues,” Ro’eh said.
Reuters contributed to this report.