Kerry dubs West Bank settlements ‘illegitimate’ as Netanyahu blames Palestinians for talks stall

Kerry dubs West Bank settlements ‘illegitimate’ as Netanyahu blames Palestinians for talks stall
As Israeli and Palestinian leaders exchanged blame for “no progress on the ground” in peace negotiations, US Secretary of State John Kerry said his government “always considered” Israel’s settlement expansion in the occupied territories to be unlawful.

While the US-brokered bilateral talks are yet to achieve an apparent result, Kerry on Wednesday stressed that he and US President Barack Obama are “determined” and “will not stop” in efforts to pursue the possibility of peace.

At the same time, the top American diplomat made it clear that the US does not approve of Israeli settlement policies, that it is “not helpful” for the talks, and that the sides should be ready for “real compromises and hard decisions.”

Let me emphasize that the position of the United States is that we consider now, and have always considered, the settlements to be illegitimate,” Kerry said after meeting the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, referring to the Israeli settlement program in the Occupied Palestinian Territory considered illegal by most countries. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry is offered a gift by young Palestinian people during a visit near Manger Square on November 6, 2013 in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. (AFP Photo / Jason Reed)

He added that “at no time” did the Palestinians agree to accept the settlements as a part of a negotiated peace deal.

The Palestinian side has viewed the controversial Israeli program as a major obstacle for the negotiations. Following the recently announced plan for 3,500 more Jewish settler homes to be built in the occupied West Bank, an anonymous senior Palestinian official told AFP that the Palestinians would refuse to lead on the talks if these “unprecedented settlement attacks” continue.

Despite Israel releasing a number of Palestinian prisoners, the defiant construction may “explode” the situation, as after all the talks “there is nothing on the ground,” Abbas said in a speech broadcast on Monday. He dismissed the notion of a prisoners-for-settlements deal with Israel, which has surfaced in media reports.

Meanwhile in Bethlehem, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemingly agreed with Abbas’s assessment of the situation – but blamed the Palestinian side for the ongoing crisis.

I am concerned about the progress because I see the Palestinians continuing with incitement, continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to avoid, run away from the historic decisions that are needed to make a genuine peace,” Netanyahu declared earlier on Wednesday, also after meeting with Kerry. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks near US Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting on November 6, 2013 in Jerusalem. (AFP Photo / Jason Reed)

Israel “will not be subjected to any restrictions concerning settlement,” Netanyahu recently vowed at a meeting with the Israeli right-wing Likud bloc, stressing that the Palestinians are well aware of that.

Kerry, however, continued to downplay the tension, saying that “despite the difficulties, both leaders, President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu, are determined to work towards this goal.”

As in any negotiation there will be moments of up and moments of down, and it goes back and forth,” Kerry added as he spoke in Bethlehem.

The shuttle diplomacy of the US Secretary of State helped to revive the Israeli-Palestinian talks last July after a three-year break. Despite widespread skepticism among Israelis and Palestinians, a nine-month target window for an agreement has been set. However, sources from both sides continued to claim there has been no progress made, and there was no sight of compromise on the most pressing issues.