"It is our duty to encourage the continued settlement in Judea and Samaria," Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday after the cabinet expanded its list of cities and communities eligible for government subsidies, which included a record number of Judea and Samaria settlements. The decision came just days after the resumption of long-frozen peace talks and drew quick Palestinian condemnation.
The Cabinet approved a range of housing subsidies and loans for more than 600 Israeli communities deemed "national priority areas," expanding an earlier list. The list includes poor towns in Israel's outlying areas, but also dozens of settlements.
The government hopes to encourage more people to move to the communities on the "national priorities" list. The last version of the list was approved in 2012.
Hatnuah ministers Tzipi Livni and Amir Peretz, and Yesh Atid ministers Yael German and Yaakov Peri abstained from the cabinet vote. During the vote, an argument broke out between Livni and Bennett, when the former objected to including secluded settlements (not included in large settlement blocs) on the list for fear of scuttling the fledgling peace talks. "We're lucky that the pioneers who built Kibbutz Hanita didn't think like you," Bennett said to Livni.
The tension between the two coalition partners, Livni and Bennett, is telling, as Livni leads the peace process which has its goal the creation of a Palestinian state, which Bennett is dead set against.
Following the decision, Livni remarked that "there is no doubt that we need to provide the citizens living in these communities with security – that is our responsibility. But it is wrong and contrary to national interests to take funds that should be going toward diminishing social gaps and using them to encourage settlement in these secluded and dangerous settlements."
"Communities in Judea and Samaria are indeed dangerous. Three-year-old Adele Biton experienced that danger in the flesh…" Bennett went on to say, referring to a young girl who was severely hurt on a Samaria road near Ariel when Palestinian rock throwers forced her mother, who was driving, to swerve off the road. "It is only because of the [security] threats that these communities deserve national benefits, and it is our duty to encourage the continued settlement of Judea and Samaria."
"To include settlements that until recently were illegal, when it's doubtful that they will remain a part of Israel, and to disproportionately invest in them -- I think it is not the time, politically speaking and socioeconomically speaking," Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz (Hatnuah) told Israel Radio.
Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Gal-On, who, as a member of the opposition, did not participate in the vote, did not spare her criticism. "The decision to include extremist outposts whose legality is not certain in the national priority map is a targeted assassination of peace efforts and a trampling of the rule of law."
The Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said the list approved Sunday increased the total number of settlements eligible for subsidies from 85 to 91, virtually all in areas Israel would likely have to evacuate to make way for a Palestinian state.
Lior Amihai of Peace Now said three of the settlements added to the list had begun as rogue settlements that were established without formal government consent and then legalized retroactively.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team, said Sunday's vote affirms Palestinian suspicions that Israel seeks the diplomatic shield of negotiations, without being willing to reach an actual partition deal.
"This is exactly what Israel wants, have a process for its own sake, and at the same time have a free hand to destroy the objective of the process," he said. "This will have a destructive impact [on the talks], and it seems to me it's up to the sponsors, the United States and the international community, to make Israel desist immediately."
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that in the case of settlements, any housing or infrastructure subsidies require additional government approval.
Peace negotiations began in Washington last week, and will continue in Jerusalem next week. The U.S. wants a deal on the terms of a Palestinian state within nine months.
As part of the talks, Israel is to free 26 long-held Palestinian prisoners on Aug. 13, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reported. It would be the first of four groups of a total of 104 veteran prisoners to be freed over the next few months.
The release is part of a U.S.-brokered deal that cleared the way for the resumption of talks.