Israel's plans to expand settlements add tension to peace talks
JERUSALEM — Israel's announcement of plans to expand Jewish settlements on land Palestinians seek for a state clouded the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks convening in the Middle East this week for the first time in three years.
The talks, which opened in Washington on July 30, were scheduled to resume on Wednesday in Israel, with further talks expected in the West Bank. Peace talks broke down three years ago in a dispute over settlement building.
Israel on Monday named 26 Palestinians whom it will free from jail this week as a goodwill gesture for the peace talks. They were expected to be released back to their homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip possibly as early as Tuesday evening.
The United States is seeking to broker an agreement on a “two-state solution” in which Israel would exist peacefully alongside a new Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, lands occupied by the Israelis since a 1967 war.
The United States, European Union and United Nations on Monday condemned Israel's announcement on Sunday of construction plans for about 2,000 new settler homes.
Palestinians condemned the settlement plans but have stopped short of threatening to walk out of the talks.
During a visit to Colombia, Secretary of State John Kerry, whose painstaking shuttle diplomacy got the talks restarted in Washington last month, urged the Palestinians “not to react adversely” to Israel's latest plans.
He said Israel's settlement steps “were to some degree expected” and urged the parties to move ahead with the talks.
“The United States of America views all of the settlements as illegitimate,” Kerry said in Bogota.
Similar criticism was voiced by spokesmen for the European Union and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Israel's settlement expansion plans, which officials say is intended for West Bank areas Israel would seek to keep under any peace deal, were an attempt to sweeten with far-right allies of Netanyahu the unpopular plan to free Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis.
About 500,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem amid 2.5 million Palestinians.