US asked Israel to halt building outside settlement blocs, impose quota: report
AHMAD GHARABLI (AFP)
The United States has asked Israel to freeze settlement construction outside of settlement blocks and imposed a yearly quota on building, Israeli media reported Wednesday.
According to the reports, the requests were made by Donald Trump's special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week.
The Haaretz daily quoted an unnamed Israeli source close to the meeting as saying that Greenblatt implied that Washington would allow building in east Jerusalem and bilaterally approved settlement blocs, but stressed clearly that Israel needs to place considerable restrictions on the amount of building that it does.
"The formula Greenblatt presented included an American request that Israel not build in settlements outside the settlement blocs at all, without exception," Haaretz said.
Israel's Channel 2 news meanwhile, reported that the Trump administration wants Israel to put a yearly quota on settlement building, i.e. the number of homes to be built each year.
Earlier Wednesday, prior to departing from a three-day trip to China to return to Israel, Netanyahu said that "substantial progress" had been made in talks over settlement building with Washington.
"There's substantial progress in the talks with Trump's team over settlement building," Netanyahu said. "Discussions are not over yet but there is progress and I will hear more about it once I get back in Israel."
Netanyahu was referring to an Israeli delegation currently in Washington headed by his chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz. The delegation is building on Greenblatt's visit to the region earlier this month.
Greenblatt arrived in Israel on March 13th on an official visit aimed at discussing restarting peace talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, and to formulate the Trump administration's policy on West Bank settlements, including what the US will accept in terms of construction.
He met a range of people on both the Palestinian and Israeli side during his visit, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan's King Abdullah II and settler leaders.
Construction on new Israeli settlement homes in the West Bank rose by 40 percent in 2016 compared with the previous year, official figures showed Wednesday.
Ground was broken on 2,630 housing units last year compared with 1,884 in 2015, figures from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics showed.
Anti-settlement NGO Peace Now called it "the second highest number of construction starts in the past 15 years".
The highest number during that time was 2,874 in 2013.
Israeli settlement building is seen as illegal under international law and a major obstacle to peace as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.
Much of the international community has raised increasing alarm over settlement expansion, saying it is gradually eating away at prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"On average, since 2001, 1,790 housing units begin to be constructed in West Bank settlements each year," Peace Now said.
Citing Israeli official data, it said 14,017 units were started since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to office in 2009, though settlement construction has continued under successive Israeli leaders.
The figures exclude east Jerusalem.
Some 200,000 Israeli settlers live in east Jerusalem, in addition to about 400,000 in the West Bank.
Around three million Palestinians live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
"The sharp increase in settlement construction sends a clear message to the Palestinians and to the international community that Israel is not interested in a two-state solution," Peace Now said.
When meeting Netanyahu at the White House in February, Trump called for Israel to "hold back on settlements for a little bit".
At that meeting, Trump also broke with decades of US policy by saying he was not bound to a two-state solution to the conflict and would be open to one state if it meant peace.
(Staff with AFP)
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