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11 Jun, 2013 04:55

Israel West Bank settlement construction at 7-yr high

Israel West Bank settlement construction at 7-yr high

Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank has accelerated to a seven-year high as Israel and the Palestinians face lingering diplomatic obstacles to peace negotiations.

Israeli NGO Peace Now released a report detailing the construction activities in the first quarter of 2013 on Sunday, saying that "between January 2013 and March 2013, construction of 865 new housing units began." It adds that “If compared to the final quarter of last year (October-December 2012), this is an astonishing 355 per cent increase."

In the meantime, US Secretary of State John Kerry readies his fifth trip to Israeli and Palestinian lands in order to broker negotiations between the two, which have been at an impasse for three years now. Kerry had said the week before that time was running out for a peace deal and that he feared that if this attempt fails, there may not be another chance to get Israel and the Palestinians talking.

Kerry has had to postpone his latest Israeli trip due to a White House talk on Syria, according to an official statement to AFP. Official and media sources said Kerry was supposed to meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres on June 11, but one source then added that the delay had been put in place to allow more time for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to decide if he wants to stop insisting that Israel put a hold on their settlement expansion.

The Palestinian pre-conditions for talks hinge on the Israelis stopping their settlement construction in the West Bank – something Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu says he cannot, and will not, do. While the Palestinian Authority urges that everyone remember the borders that existed between the two before the 1967 War, when Israel took control of Gaza and the West Bank – Netanyahu demands talks “without preconditions,” refusing to stop building settlements.

Peace Now adds to the Palestinian argument, saying that "any government committed to peace would not allow, nor continue to build settlements that inevitably harm the chances for peace." It goes on to say that, "These findings provide further evidence of a continuing government policy to prioritize settlement expansion."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (AFP Photo / Gali Tibbon)

Netanyahu has occasionally clarified his position on the settlements, saying he does not believe the matter of the settlement housing 360,000 Israelis to be an obstacle to negotiations – though he admitted that withdrawing from smaller, isolated settlements is an option.

"We need to be smart not just right," Netanyahu told MPs. "Settlement in the blocs will not significantly affect the ability to reach an agreement."

He went on, however, to say that sharing a country with the Palestinians was out of the question. "If we go into direct negotiations, it is likely to be very hard, but the alternative of a bi-national state is one we do not want," Netanyahu said.

Speaking on the possibility of a two-state solution, which he advocated back in 2009, Netanyahu said he imagined the agreement "will be based on a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state, and on firm security arrangements based on the [Israeli Defense Forces]."

Abbas’s cabinet retorted that Netanyahu’s words were themselves preconditions and that he was trying to leave Abbas without a choice in the matter.

"It is very clear that the comments of Netanyahu and his government show that he is preparing to place the blame on President Mahmud Abbas," a Palestinian official told AFP. "This is the start of trying to shift responsibility for the non-resumption of negotiations to the president and the Palestinian leadership."

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (AFP Photo / Abbas Momani)