By the Blouin News World staff

Israel’s settlement gamble

by in Middle East.

Palestinian labourers work on a construction site in Ramat Shlomo, a religious Jewish settlement in an area of the occupied West Bank Israel annexed to Jerusalem October 30, 2013.

Palestinian laborers work on a Jewish settlement. October 30, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Hours after freeing a group of Palestinian prisoners, all jailed for the deaths of Israeli citizens, Israel announced new settlement plans in east Jerusalem — a territory claimed by the Palestinian Authority. (In August, a prisoner release was similarly followed by new settlement bids.)

The move seems destined to appease critics in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhu’s cabinet, as well as mute anger on the home front. Though Tuesday’s prisoner release, the second phase of four, was a condition of a U.S.-brokered deal made this July to advance peace talks, the concession has met with vocal political opposition. Hardliners and dovish politicians alike have attacked a deal that offers Israel no tangible gain, other than the dubious prospect of peace talks moving forward. The latter group, in particular, has questioned Netanyahu’s decision to release convicted terrorists, rather than freeze settlement construction.

The popular blowback has been equally harsh. On Monday, thousands of Israelis protested in the West Bank, demanding that Netanyahu reverse his decision. The following day, signs were anonymously placed on the graves of Israeli soldiers, reading: “Sorry we forgot. For us, your death was for nothing.” Also Tuesday, Israeli victims’ groups (unsuccessfully) petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to halt the release.

But while Netanyhu’s move to build 1,500 new settler homes may cool tempers at home, the prime minister’s two-pronged strategy carries implications beyond the disputed territories. U.S. opposition to a previous incarnation of the east Jerusalem settlement plan led to cooled relations between the two allies in 2010. Palestinian leaders are intensifying their push for an international economic boycott of Israeli settlements — an appeal that could arouse sympathy in Europe, which has grown critical of Israel’s settlement policy in recent years. In June, the E.U. passed legislation blocking financial assistance to Israeli companies operating in occupied territories, namely the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The bloc is also preparing a labeling bill that will identify products as originating from the disputed territories (vs. “made in Israel”), thereby rendering them ineligible for preferential tariffs. Israel has shrugged off such measures, jeopardizing research and trade links with its largest economic partner.

All of which raises the question: are the settlements worth it?

Netanyahu seems to think so. The calculus is familiar: many of the premier’s predecessors expanded settlements in conjunction with peace talks, in an effort to appease hardliners. Yet the insular strategy looks to damage not only ties with Europe, but nascent peace talks, which are increasingly fragile a mere three months after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry re-initiated negotiations between the two camps. Nabil Abu Rdeneh, the spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the settlements are “destructive to the peace efforts and will only lead to more tensions.” (Netanyahu maintains that the planned settlements are “compensation” for this week’s prisoner release.)

Given Israel’s past reluctance to make territorial concessions — despite strong criticism from the international community, including from its U.S. ally — it is unlikely to budge now. So the stalemate will drag on. Especially if the two remaining prisoner releases follow Netanyahu’s formula.