Gaza, Agencies - Israel’s interior minister lay down the foundations of a new Israeli settlement project in the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Banka, in a gesture of defiance that will coincide with US secretary of state John Kerry’s latest visit to the region to push forward peace talks.
Gideon Sa’ar will preside at a groundbreaking ceremony for the new neighbourhood in Gitit, which organisers said was meant to demonstrate that the Jordan Valley – which the Palestinians see as the breadbasket of their independent state – “will always be Israeli”.
The future of the Jordan Valley, a largely agricultural area in the West Bank which Israel wants to keep under its military control after any future peace agreement, has emerged as a big irritant in the five-month-old talks.
Israel’s government infuriated the Palestinians on Sunday when a ministerial legislative committee approved a bill to annex the area, where a string of Israeli farming settlements established after the Six-Day war in 1967 stretches along the Jordanian frontier.
Although the law will never pass without the approval of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who is unlikely to push it forward while the US-sponsored peace talks continue – eight ministers in his government, including three from his own Likud party, voted to give it the green light.
Commentators in Israel described the vote as political theatre engineered by his hard-right rivals inside government, but also criticised the prime minister for failing to put a stop to a move seen as provocative by the Palestinians and the Americans. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, said the annexation proposal “shows the extent of Israeli disrespect for international law”.
Yuval Steinitz, intelligence minister and a member of Likud, told Israel Radio on Wednesday: “The Jordan Valley is part of the state of Israel in my view (and) it must remain in the state of Israel because it is our eastern security border, and it is what will ensure that what happened in Gaza will not repeat itself.”
Netanyahu’s government worries that a future Palestinian state would be vulnerable to takeover by groups hostile to Israel, as happened in the Gaza Strip after Israel withdrew in 2003, but the Palestinians firmly oppose any Israeli military presence there after independence.
Responding to the Israeli move, the Palestinians on Tuesday held a cabinet meeting in a village in the Jordan Valley, which Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said was meant to send the message to Israel and the Americans that the area “belongs to the Palestinians”. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem is illegal under international law.
Separately, Israel will announce this week or next plans to proceed with about 1,400 new housing units in settlements, an official told the Financial Times.
Mr Kerry is due to arrive on Thursday for meetings with Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, with the aim of narrowing differences between the two sides that would allow them to reach a framework agreement covering “final-status” issues including borders, security, refugees and the status of Jerusalem. The talks are scheduled to last until the end of April.
Israeli officials said this week that the outline may include an endorsement of the West Bank’s 1967 borders with Israel, with some settlement land swapped for new Palestinian territory inside Israel, while asking the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.
The Americans, who are trying to keep the talks secret, are not commenting on the issues discussed.
A poll published on Wednesday found that 63 per cent of Israelis and 53 per cent of Palestinians surveyed supported the two-state solution that would see an independent Palestine established. However, support dropped to 54 per cent and 46 per cent respectively when those polled were quizzed on specifics of a peace deal.