On the eve of the Palestinian-Israel talks in Occupied Jerusalem, an Israeli cliffhanger emerged last Sunday when the hawkish Israeli government launched an illegal housing scheme in the oOccupied Palestinian territories virtually undermining the projected US-sponsored peace negotiations.

The talks, a signature bid undertaken by Secretary of State John Kerry in countless sessions with key Palestinian and Israeli representatives, were scheduled to run for nine months in the hope of reaching a final settlement for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that began in 1948 and saw several regional bloody confrontations.

The Israeli attempt virtually shattered the praiseworthy American effort, confusing Kerry’s staff since he was out of town on his initial official trip to South America. The State Department spokesperson was tongue-tied in responding to several questions at her two briefings, guardedly saying that the US government had “serious concerns” about the haughty Israeli action.

Kerry stepped in quickly from Brazil. Yet, his explanation was not very clear, saying that the Israel plan to build 1,200 houses, “was going to be a continuation of some building in certain places, and [shockingly] I think the Palestinians understand that”. After all, this housing scheme could provide residence, at least, to some 50,000 illegal Israeli colonists in the occupied Palestinian territories, particularly in occupied east Jerusalem where the Palestinians hope to establish their capital. In fact, two-thirds of the houses are scheduled to be located in occupied east Jerusalem.

But, he continued, defensively, “I think one of the [Israeli] announcements or maybe one of them was outside the level of expectation, and that’s being discussed now.”

Kerry also expressed hope that this latest development would not become a “speed bump”, urging that the Palestinians “not to react adversely”. And, in an obvious attempt to placate the Palestinians he surprisingly declared in Colombia:

“As the world, I hope, knows, the United States of America views all the [Israeli] settlements [colonies] as illegal …. We have communicated that policy to all our friends in Israel.”

This seemingly sneaky Israeli action had the potential of torpedoing Kerry’s well-meaning efforts. In fact, the European Union and the United Nations were not dismissive and went on to condemn Israel’s construction announcement. Most world powers, including Russia, regard all the Israeli colonies as illegal. “Taking this step on the eve of the renewal of peace talks…is not effective and does not aid the process,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Israel’s counter-offer, intended to reassure the Palestinians, was the release of 26 Palestinians, who have spent more than 20 years in Israeli jails. They are the first batch of a 104 long-term Palestinians and Arab inmates to be freed in four stages, depending on the progress in the peace talks. But unexpectedly the majority of the prisoners will be returned to the Gaza Strip, which is run by Hamas, a rival Palestinian Islamist group of the Palestine Liberation Organisation headed by Mahmoud Abbas, and which remains hostile to Israel. Whatever motivated Israel to make that decision remains unclear.

Lara Friedman, director of Policy and Government Relations at Americans for Peace Now, explained that some may argue these Israeli developments are about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “keeping his right-wing coalition partners in check as peace talks restart and as the Palestinian prisoners are released”.

She continued: “Perhaps, but that doesn’t change the fact that each new settlement [colony]-related announcement is a provocation that erodes the viability of the nascent peace initiative, undermines the credibility of Palestinians who remain committed to a negotiated agreement, and makes it hard to achieve a two-state solution.”

There is no doubt that the Palestinian question remains in a mercurial state. This is particularly true because the Arab Spring, that has undermined many authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, has shifted the region’s focus on all developmental issues, ignoring the Palestinian question. But this should not mean the Palestinians would feel abandoned or even dismissive. A recent opinion poll, conducted by a Ramallah think-tank, Arab World for Research and Development, reported that only 46 per cent of the surveyed youth support returning to the negotiation table while 48 per cent reject it.

The poll also showed that 45 per cent of the 1,200 people sample supports a two-state solution with a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borderline when Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while 52 per cent oppose it. Furthermore, President Abbas was the more preferable leader to undertake negotiations with Israel.

In brief, what that means is that the ball is now in the Israeli court if it is serious about a two-state solution, virtually along the 1967 armistice lines with minor swap of land.

George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at ghishmeh@gulfnews.com.