This post has been updated to add John Kerry’s statements.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is claiming that the Palestinian leadership agreed to new settlement construction in exchange for release of Palestinian prisoners during the current bilateral peace negotiations. There have been reports of such an understanding in the Israeli media, but no official confirmation so far.
In an interview to the Israeli news channel i24, Netanyahu said:
“If they can’t even stand up to, or stand behind the agreements that we had that we would release prisoners while we continue building, then how can I assume that they’ll actually stand by the larger issues that will require of them far greater confrontation with received opinion and with fixed positions in their societies?” asked Netanyahu. “You want to lead? Stand up. Do the difficult things. I’ve done it. I expect the Palestinians to do it.”
The Palestinian leadership has been protesting Israel’s decision to advance the construction of no fewer than 5,000 new housing units in the West Bank, including hundreds in isolated settlements outside the areas know as the settlement blocks. Head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Saeb Erkat, even threatened to resign over the issue.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday, in no unclear language, shot down the notion.
“I want to make it extremely clear that at no time did the Palestinians in any way agree, as a matter of going back to the talks, that they somehow condone or accept the settlements,” Kerry said in Bethlehem after meeting with Abbas. “The Palestinians believe that the settlements are illegal.”
Kerry did not, however, rule out that the Palestinians were made aware of the new settlement construction ahead of time. “That is not to say that [the Palestinians] weren’t aware or we weren’t aware that there would be construction.”
Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners convicted of crimes before the 1993 Oslo Accord during the course of the nine-month peace talks. The prisoners were to be released in four stages, two of which have already taken place, the latest happening last week.
Also on the issue of settlements, former head of the Yesha Council head Dani Dayan rejected estimates regarding the number of Israeli settlers living beyond the Green Line published by Eliot Abrams and Uri Sadot in Foreign Policy. Based on Israeli Bureau of Statistic figures, Dayan wrote in a Haaretz op-ed (Hebrew), there are over 566,000 Jews living in the West Bank; 366,000 of them in settlements and the rest in East Jerusalem. Out of this number, 159,000 live outside the so-called settlement blocks, wrote Dayan.