Ahead Of Peace Talks, Israel Expands Settlements

Just days before U.S. brokered peace talks are to resume, the Israeli government has cleared the way for construction of more than a thousand new housing units in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. The move is sure to cast a shadow over the talks, but Israeli expectations for the talks are already very low.

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Secretary of State John Kerry has invested time, effort and American prestige into finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is restarting a peace process that has been stalled for years. Direct talks between the parties are set to resume on Wednesday, in Jerusalem.

To lay the groundwork for the talks, yesterday, Israel released the names of 26 Palestinian prisoners it would set free.

But Israel also announced the next step in building nearly 1,200 new housing units for Jewish families on land that's still subject to the negotiations over a new Palestinian state, and settlement expansions like this always infuriate the Palestinians.

Reporter Sheera Frenkel is following the story from Jerusalem, and joins me now. Sheera, good morning.

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

Sheera, whenever Israel announces new housing in disputed areas, the Palestinians are critical, I mean, the Israelis get criticism from the West, the United States. I mean, why now? What's the timing, here?

Well, there's really two factors at play, here. On the one hand, you have the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners. This is a move seen by people in the Palestinian government as a goodwill gesture, meant to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. On the other hand, you have Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needing to look after his own government and his own coalition, which has quite a few members of the staunchly pro-settler the movement, the Jewish Home party.

What's interesting is just last week, I interviewed a minister in Netanyahu's government was said to me: Most of us - in fact, all of us - are supportive of a peace process. It's just that we're not all supportive of a resolution. So they want see Netanyahu engaged in a peace process. They know that the U.S. has put pressure on Netanyahu to take part in a peace process. But what the results of that process will be, and if it actually comes to a resolution, that's less clear, whether Netanyahu will have the backing of his own government.

GREENE: So there are people within the government who support the idea of peace talks, they just don't want them to really succeed?

FRENKEL: Yeah. If they reach fruition, if it comes to an actual agreement and Netanyahu presents a treaty to his Cabinet, it's not clear at all whether or not he'll have the support of his own ministers, let alone the wider parliament or Knesset. Interestingly enough, Netanyahu just recently supported a bill which would call for a national referendum in Israel, meaning that even if he achieved what many considered impossible, of getting it past the parliament, he would then have to have a national referendum held in the entire state of Israel and get public backing. More than 50 percent of the public would have to back a land-for-peace agreement.

GREENE: All right, then, Sheera, let's talk about the Palestinian side, now. Are the Palestinians still going to go forward with these peace talks, despite this announcement of new construction from the Israelis?

FRENKEL: That's really unclear. You've already heard Palestinian negotiators, including Mohammed Shtayyeh, asking Israel to withdraw the construction plans. They say that those plans show that Israel isn't serious about the peace process, and that actually, the plans themselves could provide a hindrance to the future of the peace talks. On the other hand, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas did drop his demand for a freeze on settlement construction as a precondition to the peace talks. And so going into the next 48 hours, I'm sure that the U.S. administration are maneuvering very, very carefully in the background to make sure that the Palestinians do show up at the peace talks on Wednesday evening.

GREENE: And Sheera, everything happening in the region - the whole backdrop, the turmoil in Syria, the political turmoil in Egypt - I mean, has that changed the dynamic or expectations for a peace plan?

FRENKEL: So, you've had some Israeli figures - including prominent Israeli left-wing politician Yossi Beilin - saying that Israel needs to be engaged in a serious and immediate peace process with Palestinians in order not to draw negative attention onto itself. On the other hand, you've had a good deal of politicians in Netanyahu's own Cabinet coming forward and saying: Why should we, as Israelis, be engaged in a peace talk with Palestinians, when Palestinians themselves would need the backing of regimes and of governments which we don't know will exist in the coming months, let alone the coming years?

In polls that have been conducted, Israelis say that they're very concerned for their security. And as they look at the turmoil in the region around them, they're asking: Why should Israel right now the thinking of a land-for-peace deal with Palestinians, when it should be concerned with its own security and safety?

GREENE: All right. Those direct peace talks expected to begin later this week. Sheera Frenkel, joining us from Jerusalem. Thanks a lot, Sheera.

FRENKEL: Thank you.

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