x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Israel's actions demonstrate its true intentions

Approving new settlement homes on the eve of peace talks reveals what Israel's real priorities are.

The Israeli government has managed to achieve something many thought to be impossible: diminishing the already slight expectations for the peace talks with the Palestinians due to begin today.

Three years after the last substantive talks collapsed primarily because Israel continued to build settlements on Palestinian territory, Israeli housing minister Uri Ariel used the lead-up to the resumption of negotiations to announce plans to build nearly 1,200 new homes on occupied land. Most of them will be in East Jerusalem, the intended Palestinian capital.

Then a day later, an Israeli television station broke the news that another 942 homes, also in East Jerusalem, had been approved in secret.

The US has considerable power to affect Israel but, as usual, lacks the political will to do so. Secretary of State John Kerry's ineffectual response demonstrated that, restating the administration's view that all settlements are illegitimate but urging the Palestinians to resume negotiations rather than reacting adversely.

The latest developments mark a change in approach for the Israeli government, which despite actively working to destroy the prospect of a viable Palestinian state by building settlements has usually been adept at portraying itself as seeking peace.

No such pretence is visible now.

When Mr Ariel announced the new homes by vowing that residential construction would continue "in the entire country", it was a moment when the government's words were finally aligned with its actions.

In the hotbed of Israeli-Palestinian politics, few such revelations happen entirely randomly. The timing of more than 2,000 new homes will have been designed to send a message to Israel's pro-settlement constituencies that releasing 26 Palestinian prisoners was not a softening of the government's approach.

So here we are again. As the parties sit down around the table today, how can even the most optimistic Palestinian harbour any hopes that Israel is truly a partner in peace with the intention to end the occupation?

And how can they take on merit the US's claim to be an honest broker rather than Israel's staunchest supporter?