The Israeli government maintains a list of “national priority areas” that designates towns and cities it considers “disadvantaged” and in need of help. So when the cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday approved a new map of these national priorities and included an additional 20 communities – including nine Jewish settlements in the West Bank – it seemed to clarify exactly where his government stands on Israel’s presence in the territory Israel has occupied since 1967. In total, 91 West Bank settlements are now on the list of some 600 priority communities, a designation that entitles the towns to subsidies and financial breaks in housing, infrastructure, education, culture and security. The government included on the list three communities that until recently were illegal under Israeli law. Most countries in the world, including the United States, considers all settlements illegal. Israel rejects that position.
But an Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that the Netanyahu government is going into the talks entirely serious about reaching a deal with the Palestinians. The official also notes there is currently a slowdown on settlement building in order to improve the chances that the talks will succeed.
Yair Sheleg, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, says that the decision to include the new settlements on the national priority areas list was not likely intended to scuttle peace talks before they had even begun and had more likely been in the bureaucratic pipeline for some time, reflecting a long-term trend of the government in providing support for settlements. But Sheleg says there may have been some political calculations involved: “I think there’s a chance that Netanyahu wants to show the rightists in his public and his government that he is not willing to concede the settlements. Although he agreed to the renewal of talks, at the same time he will strengthen the settlements, so that everyone in Israel and in the international community will know that he is determined to keep those settlements after an agreement. He wants to show his constituents that during the negotiations, not only will not freeze them but he will strengthen them.”
Moreover, says Sheleg, Netanyahu can say to the Palestinians: “’I gave you the prisoners, and this is my gesture to you. To my voters I have to show I’m still committed to the settlements.’” Netanyahu agreed earlier this month to release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners as a confidence-building measure, the first group of whom are due to be released next week.
For now, both sides remain committed to showing up for the start of the talks.