An Israeli cabinet decision to increase the number of West Bank settlements eligible for state benefits is a badly-timed blow to the newly-resumed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The Cabinet's vote Sunday to establish a new “national priority” list that included a record 90 settlements eligible for state benefits, among them several that had previously been seen as illegal even under Israeli law, raises doubts about how serious the government is about pursuing peace.
The decision was even more troubling when considered in the light of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s willingness to release over 100 Palestinians convicted of violence and terrorism as part of the agreement that paved the way for a resumption of peace talks.
While agreeing to release the prisoners, Israeli media outlets reported that Netanyahu refused to freeze settlement building or accept that the talks should be conducted on an agreed basis that Israel’s border with a future Palestinian state should be drawn on the basis of the 1967 line plus land swaps.
This raises the question of whether the Netanyahu government values its ability to keep building settlements in areas that the Prime Minister himself has said will have to be evacuated as part of a peace agreement more than it cares about the lives of those potentially put at risk by the release of violent offenders.
Cabinet member Amir Peretz, who was one of four ministers to abstain in the vote, said: “This is a political, not national priority which goes against efforts to promote peace,” he said. Peretz also noted that settlements were getting preferential treatment at the expense of struggling development communities within pre-1967 Israel which were not included.
J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said releasing violent prisoners was always wrenching for Israel and especially for the families of victims – but could be justified if it helped lead to a peace agreement that would end the conflict and guarantee Israel’s future as a democracy and a homeland for the Jewish people.