JERUSALEM — Out of diplomatic courtesy, and because the Americans specifically asked it to, the Israeli government postponed announcing plans to build new housing in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — at least while Secretary of State John F. Kerry was in town last week trying to broker a peace deal.
On Friday, it went ahead, announcing that 1,400 more new houses and apartments will be constructed in the contested areas that Palestinians claim as part of their future state.
About 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. What to do about the Israelis in the growing settlements — and how any new borders might be drawn to include some or exclude others — are core issues in the current U.S.-led peace negotiations.
Israeli analysts said Friday’s announcement helps Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keep his governing coalition together, appeasing allies on his pro-settlement right flank while continuing to participate in peace efforts brokered by Kerry.
But continued announcements of new Jewish settlements have a price. The chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, Saeb Erekat, on Friday called the construction plans “a slap to Mr. Kerry’s efforts and a clear message by Israel's prime minister: ‘Don’t continue with your peace efforts.’ ”
Erekat has expressed the opinion that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should abandon the talks and seek recognition and redress for Palestinians at the United Nations and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where the Palestinians threaten to seek war crimes charges against Israel.
Most independent legal experts consider the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, taken after the 1967 war, to be illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this. Kerry has called the settlements “illegitimate” and unhelpful to the peace process.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki reiterated that view Friday, saying that U.S. officials “consider now and have always considered the settlements to be illegitimate.”
“We have called on both sides many, many times to create a positive atmosphere for negotiations,” Psaki said, according to the Associated Press. “Obviously, anything that doesn’t do that is not helpful.”
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the latest announcement, saying, “Such activity is not only illegal but also an obstacle to peace,” the Associated Press reported.
It was widely expected that Israel would announce, as it had twice before, new settlement construction immediately after the release of the third round of Palestinian prisoners two weeks ago. Israeli officials said they held off because Kerry and his team asked them to wait until he was gone.
Before Friday’s announcement, some European diplomats warned that they were growing frustrated with Israel’s new settlement construction.
Last year, the European Commission issued new guidelines that prohibit giving funds, grants, scholarships or prizes to Israeli entities in the settlements.
Earlier this week, a large Dutch pension fund said it will divest from five Israeli banks because of their ties to Jewish settlements.
Netanyahu also faced criticism at home. Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid called the plans for more building “void of content” and “a bad idea.”
Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor Party and the voice of the opposition in the Israeli parliament, said Netanyahu should have frozen settlement building instead of releasing Palestinian prisoners, according to the Times of Israel.
But a leader of a pro-settlement council, Dani Dayan, said most of the new construction falls within East Jerusalem and the large settlements that Israel will probably never surrender. He tweeted, “It is hard to understand then why the government waited so long and why it causes any furor.”