x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Settlement spat looms large over Kerry’s Mideast visit

US secretary of state reaffirms America’s opposition to Israeli settlements, as Israel’s talks with Palestinians break down over Israeli announcement to push ahead with 3,700 new settler homes.

US secretary of state John Kerry (centre) near Manger Square in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.  “We consider now, and have always considered, the settlements to be illegitimate.” Jason Reed / AFP
US secretary of state John Kerry (centre) near Manger Square in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. “We consider now, and have always considered, the settlements to be illegitimate.” Jason Reed / AFP

BETHLEHEM // John Kerry yesterday reaffirmed the United States’ opposition to Israeli settlements after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of creating “artificial crises” over the issue.

The US secretary of state arrived in the region late on Tuesday in a bid to keep fragile peace talks on track as recriminations grow following three months of negotiations that appear to have made little progress in resolving the decades-old conflict.

His first meeting yesterday was with Mr Netanyahu, who denounced the Palestinians for threatening to quit the talks over Israel’s continued settlement construction on land they want for their future state.

The Israeli leader told Mr Kerry he was “concerned about the progress” of the talks, accusing the Palestinians of fabricating reasons to avoid making tough decisions.

“I see the Palestinians ... continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to avoid, run away from the historic decisions that are needed to make a genuine peace,” Mr Netanyahu said.

After nearly three hours of talks with Mr Netanyahu, Kerry drove to the West Bank city of Bethlehem where he sought to play down the dispute.

“As in any negotiations, there will be moments of up and moments of down. It goes back and forth,” he told the crowds gathered outside the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus’s birth.

But following more than two hours of talks with the Palestinians, including 40 minutes one-to-one with the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, he was quick to reiterate US opposition to the settlements.

“We consider now, and have always considered, the settlements to be illegitimate,” Mr Kerry said.

“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 could somehow condone or accept the settlements,” he added.

“That is not to say that they weren’t aware – or we weren’t aware – that there would be construction.

“But that construction, importantly, in our judgement, would be much better off limited as much as possible in an effort to help create a climate for these talks to be able to proceed effectively.”

A bitter row has erupted over Israeli moves during the past week to push ahead with construction of more than 3,700 new settler homes.

Talks between the two negotiating teams which took place on Tuesday broke down over the issue, a senior Palestinian official said.

Several Israeli officials have claimed the settlement announcements were in keeping with tacit “understandings” between the two sides linked to the release last week of 26 long-term Palestinian prisoners.

Their comments sparked furious denials from the Palestinians.

“Israel claims there’s a deal to continue settlement building in exchange for releasing the last batch of prisoners, but this is not true at all,” the Palestinian official said.

“The Palestinian delegation reiterated to the American side its absolute rejection of these claims. But the Israeli side insists on continued settlement building, and we can’t continue talks in light of this unprecedented settlement attack.”

Israel denies its construction is a violation of the terms which brought the two sides back to the table.

“We agreed three months ago on certain terms. We stand by those terms, we abide scrupulously by the terms of the agreement and the understanding which launched negotiations,” Netanyahu said at the start of his meeting with Kerry.

Despite the row, Mr Kerry later told the Israeli president Shimon Peres that the peace process “is not mission impossible. It can happen”.

During his stopover in Bethlehem, Mr Kerry unveiled US$75 million (Dh275m) in US aid for Palestinian infrastructure projects in the West Bank.

“We need to develop the economies to show both peoples that peace has the benefits of economic opportunity and prosperity and a better quality of life,” he said, saying that Bethlehem was a key example of the “untapped potential” of the Palestinian economy.

* Agence France-Presse