Israel announces plans for Jewish settlements

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JERUSALEM -- Out of diplomatic courtesy, and because the Americans specifically asked them to, the Israeli government postponed announcing plans to build new housing in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territory the Palestinians claim for their future state -- at least while Secretary of State John F. Kerry was in town last week trying to broker a peace deal.

But as promised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, construction in the contested areas will continue, with the announcement Friday of another 1,400 new houses and apartments.

About 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. What to do about the Israelis in the growing settlements -- and how any new borders might be drawn to include some or exclude others -- are core issues in the current U.S.-led peace negotiations.

Israeli analysts said Friday's announcement of new construction of Jewish settlements helps Mr. Netanyahu keep his governing coalition together, appeasing allies on his pro-settlement right flank while continuing to participate in peace efforts brokered by Mr. Kerry.

But continued announcements of new settlements have a price. The chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, Saeb Erekat, on Friday called the construction plans "a slap to Mr. Kerry's efforts and a clear message by Israel's prime minister: 'Don't continue with your peace efforts.' "

Mr. Erekat has expressed the opinion that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should abandon the talks and seek recognition and redress for Palestinians at the United Nations and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where the Palestinians threaten to seek war crimes charges against Israel.

It was widely expected that Israel would announce, as it had twice before, new settlement construction immediately after the release of the third round of Palestinian prisoners two weeks ago. Israeli diplomats said they held off because Mr. Kerry and his team asked them to wait until he was gone.

Before Friday's announcement, some European diplomats warned that they were growing frustrated with Israel's new settlement construction. Last year, the European Commission issued new guidelines that prohibit giving funds, grants, scholarships or prizes to Israeli entities in the settlements. Earlier this week, a large Dutch pension fund said it will divest from five Israeli banks because of their ties to Jewish settlements.

Mr. Netanyahu also faced criticism at home. Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor Party and the opposition's voice in the Israeli parliament, said Mr. Netanyahu should have frozen settlement building instead of releasing Palestinian prisoners, which Mr. Herzog called "immoral."

But a leader of a pro-settlement council, Dani Dayan, said most of the new construction falls within East Jerusalem and the large settlements that Israel will likely never surrender. He tweeted, "So it's hard to understand then why the government waited so long and why it causes any furor."

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