Housing Minister Uri Ariel published 1,400 new construction tenders, 600 in Jerusalem and 800 in Judea and Samaria, only four days after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ended another shuttle diplomacy mission meant to promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The announcement was made Friday with the approval of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and came on the heels of the release of 26 Palestinian terrorists in the third of four installment of a prisoner release pledged to the Palestinian Authority upon the resumption of the peace talks in August. The decision was made despite U.S., European and Palestinian requests not to advance settlement construction, claiming that it would impede the negotiations.
The Prime Minister's Office stated that the announcement does not violate the terms of the talks and that Israel did not agree to any moratorium on settlement construction.
Kerry is expected to return to the region in the coming days, this time to visit Kuwait for the Arab League conference.
According to a statement from the Housing Ministry and the Israel Land Authority, the tenders include construction in northern Jerusalem's Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, where 600 housing units will be built, and 801 units in Judea and Samaria, including 227 in Efrat, 78 in Alfei Menashe, 86 in Karnei Shomron, 40 in Ariel, 75 in Adam, 24 in Beitar Illit, 102 in Emmanuel and 169 in Elkana.
Many in the political arena believe that the road from the publication of the tenders to the actual construction is a long one. Finance Minister Yair Lapid said: "These are not housing tenders, they are empty housing declarations." He stressed that "this is not only a bad idea, but an idea that Yesh Atid will do everything it can to leave behind as a bad and unusable idea." Coalition members claimed Lapid knew about the plans.
The opposition also came out against the plan, as expected. Opposition Leader MK Isaac Herzog (Labor) said, "The publication of the Housing Ministry's [construction] tenders harms the negotiations. The prisoner release was a wrong and immoral step, and the prime minister had other options." Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Gal-On said, "This is like [planting] a mine in the American government's efforts to advance a diplomatic agreement. This is a submission to the settler right-wing in Netanyahu's coalition."
Reactions from overseas came in quickly as well: "We consider now and have always considered the settlements to be illegitimate, and we express that, of course, on a regular basis, as needed," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also criticized the decision, stressing that settlement-building is "not only illegal but also an obstacle to peace."
Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spoke at a meeting with the Palestinian leadership at the Muqataa compound in Ramallah on Friday, where he said he would present Kerry's proposal for the consideration of the foreign ministers of the Arab League at this week's conference in Kuwait.
Abbas further said he will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and that without a solution to the issue of Jerusalem, there will be no peace agreement. He stressed that "the Jordan Valley is an integral part of the Palestinian state," and that neither he, nor any other Arab leader, is prepared to make concessions on the right of return. Abbas stated that the right of return must have a solution accepted by Palestinian refugees.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Kerry should be praised for his efforts in the negotiations. In an interview with British newspaper the Daily Telegraph, he said, "It's the best proposal we can get and we really appreciate the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry. He has really put a lot of energy into the issue."