Announcement of building on occupied land overshadows the expected release of 26 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails and snubs US secretary of state John Kerry, who brokered talks. Hugh Naylor reports from Ramallah
Israel 'destroying Palestinian peace talks' with plans to build 1,200 more settler homes
RAMALLAH //Israel was accused yesterday of destroying new Palestinian peace talks before they begin with plans to build 1,200 more settler homes on occupied land.
The settler announcement overshadowed the expected release tomorrow of 26 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
It was also a calculated snub to the US secretary of state John Kerry, who brokered talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders expected to resume in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
"No country in the world takes orders from other countries about where it can and cannot build," the Israeli housing minister Uri Ariel said.
Jewish settlements are a major obstacle to the creation of a Palestinian state. The last round of peace talks in 2010 collapsed because the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, refused to stop building them.
Israel is trying to "destroy the negotiations before they start and destroy the principle of the two-state solution", the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
His deputy, Mohammed Shtayeh, accused Israel using "peace negotiations as a smoke screen for more settlement construction".
Mr Erekat stopped short of threatening to boycott Wednesday's meeting but the new settlement plans infuriated other Palestinians, including Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
"The leadership, including Abbas, are extremely angry," a PLO official said. He said news of the settler expansion plans broke just after the Palestinian leader met Washington's special envoy to the peace talks, Martin Indyk, in his Ramallah compound.
"I don't think Indyk had any idea that Israel was going to announce this," the official said.
More than 500,000 Israelis live in settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which along with the Gaza Strip were captured by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Their presence on land wanted for a future Palestinian state, and the basis on which its borders would be decided, were among the hurdles to resuming the peace talks, in which israel is being represented by its justice minister, Tzipi Livni, and Isaac Molcho, a confidant of Mr Netanyahu.
Officials on both sides held preliminary discussions last month with Mr Kerry in Washington, at which they agreed to nine months of talks for concluding a peace deal.
The secretary of state has vested considerable amounts of American effort and prestige in resuming peace talks, having visiting the region six times since the beginning of the year to cajole Israeli and Palestinian officials back to talks.
Part of the inducements he offered for a Palestinian return to negotiations was persuading Israel to release from jail 104 Palestinians who have been held since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords. The first of the four phases of that release is scheduled for tomorrow, and the Israeli cabinet met yesterday to select the first 26 prisoners to hand over to the Palestinians.
To accommodate Mr Netanyahu and his pro-settlement government, Mr Kerry appears to have successfully persuaded Mr Abbas to drop his key demand - a halt to settler construction.
He also appears to have persuaded the Palestinian leader to drop his other demand - that Israel use as a basis for negotiations the borders that existed before the 1967 war.
* Additional reporting by Bloomberg News and Reuters