Israeli PM orders rethink on settlement construction plans

Settlement homes under construction at Givat Zeev in the West Bank (September 2013) Settlements are considered illegal under international law, which Israel disputes

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered his housing minister to reconsider construction plans for more than 20,000 homes in the West Bank.

He said the plans, announced by Housing Minister Uri Ariel earlier on Tuesday, would create unnecessary friction with the international community.

The US had earlier said it was "deeply concerned" over the Israeli plans.

The Palestinians had said they would appeal to the UN, warning that Israel's move would kill off peace talks.

In a statement, Mr Netanyahu said he had asked Housing Minister Uri Ariel "to reconsider" plans for potential construction of new homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

Analysis

The minister responsible for housing in Israel's coalition government is Uri Ariel from the Jewish Home party, which flatly opposes the idea that a Palestinian state might one day be created on the West Bank of the River Jordan.

Mr Ariel's party considers the land to be the historic birthright of the Jewish people under its Biblical names of Judea and Samaria.

He would see no distinction in theory between granting planning or zoning permission in Tel Aviv or Haifa, and doing the same thing in what the rest of the world regards as occupied Palestinian territory.

Mr Ariel's job gives him plenty of scope to roil the waters around peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which are already floundering.

His latest announcements of new homes planned in the territories related to a very early stage of Israel's lengthy planning process - nowhere near construction.

But Mr Ariel's boss, Benjamin Netanyahu, is trying to play a subtler game with international opinion.

He wants to persuade the world powers to back Israel's hard line in nuclear negotiations with Iran - so he knows Israel cannot afford to alienate world opinion by jeopardising the Palestinian peace talks over the settlements.

Without Mr Netanyahu's slapdown of Mr Ariel it seems Palestinian negotiators might have walked away from the talks. As things stand, the talks are still going, even if they are not going well.

The prime minister added that such a move would make no contribution to Jewish settlements and "creates an unnecessary confrontation with the international community at a time when we are making an effort to persuade elements in the international community to reach a better deal with Iran".

Mr Netanyahu was referring to recent talks in Geneva on Tehran's controversial programme that ended without a deal.

The statement added that Mr Ariel had accepted the prime minister's request.

'Deep concern'

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas earlier warned that current stalled peace talks with Israel would be effectively over if Israel proceeded with the construction.

The Palestinians also said they would appeal to the UN to urgently discuss the issue.

In Washington, state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said earlier the US was "deeply concerned" by Israel's plans.

She added that America would seek "further explanation" from Israel on the issue.

Last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry emphasised Washington's rejection of Israeli settlement activity as "illegitimate".

The direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched in July have shown little sign of progress. A previous round of negotiations collapsed in September 2010 in a bitter row over Israeli settlements.

Mr Netanyahu wants Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a priority, whereas the Palestinians say borders and security top their agenda.

The Palestinians want their state to include all land captured by Israel in 1967, but some 500,000 Jews now live in more than 200 settlements and outposts in the West Bank including East Jerusalem. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem (6 November) Last week, John Kerry rejected Israeli settlement activity as "illegitimate"

However, Mr Netanyahu has rejected any return to the pre-1967 ceasefire lines as "indefensible", saying it would not take into account the "demographic changes on the ground".

Mutually-agreed land swaps have been discussed in previous talks as a way to overcome this problem.

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