Israel set to advance 4,000 settlement homes, testing US opposition

Israel is set to advance plans for nearly 4,000 housing units in Israeli settlements in the West Bank next week, despite firm American opposition to settlement construction.

The Defense Ministry said 2,536 units are slated to be green-lit through the final planning stage by the Civil Administration’s Higher Planning Subcommittee at the Thursday meeting, while another 1,452 will advance through an earlier stage in the permitting process known as deposit.

The expected approvals will come just over a month before a planned visit to Israel by US President Joe Biden.

Washington has repeatedly said Israeli settlements threaten a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When Israel advanced some 3,000 settlement homes last October, the State Department called it “completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and restore calm.” Several weeks later, Israel retired from plans for a massive construction project near Atarot in East Jerusalem following US pressure.

Over the past several years, Israel has approved new batches of settlements on a quarterly basis, though gaps between meetings of the Higher Planning Subcommittee have sometimes extended longer during sensitive diplomatic periods. The committee operates under the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration, which administers West Bank construction in areas under full Israeli civilian control.

Over six months have passed since the last meeting, but pressure had been growing in recent weeks on Prime Minister Naftali Bennett from within his own party to push ahead new housing construction beyond the Green Line.

US President Joe Biden, right, meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, August 27, 2021. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The premier’s office notified the Biden administration ahead of time of its plans to reconvene the Defense Ministry body that authorizes settlement construction, an Israeli official said. The official noted that the Americans reiterated their opposition to such moves, but denied a report of an ultimatum from Washington.

“They emphasized their long-held position, but there wasn’t a threat,” the Israeli official said.

Two other sources familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that no conditions were placed on Biden’s visit, calling a Channel 12 news report alleging the contrary baseless.

Channel 12 had reported earlier Friday that the White House had conditioned Biden’s scheduled trip to Israel on there being no announcements of new settlement construction.

MK Nir Orbach attends an Arrangements Committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Nir Orbach, a Knesset Member from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s hardline Yamina faction, responded with a statement that “anyone who does not recognize Israel’s right to build in Judea and Samaria is welcome not to come.”

As it did with the last batch of green-lit settlement plans, the Defense Ministry will also advance building projects for Palestinians in areas of the West Bank under its civilian control, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel

Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 during the Six-Day War. Palestinians hope to establish an independent state on the territories.

While most of the 25 projects slated to be advanced next week are for settlements located closer to the Green Line, other plans slated to be green-lit are for settlements located deep in the West Bank, east of the security barrier. This includes a project for 56 homes in Negohot, which will be advanced through the deposit stage, and a plan for 534 homes in Shevut Rachel and 114 homes in Ma’aleh Michmash that are expected to be advanced through the final planning stage.

In addition to adding thousands of new homes, the plans will retroactively legalize the Mitzpeh Dani and Oz V’gaon outposts. The former is a wildcat neighborhood of the Ma’aleh Michmash settlement in the heart of the West Bank and the latter is a nature reserve and education center that was built following the kidnap and murder of Israeli teens Gil-ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel in the summer of 2014.

“This government is no different than any others. It’s no government of change. They continue to build in the West Bank and destroy the possibility of peace,” said Hagit Ofran, a lead researcher at Peace Now, comparing the current administration to the previous one.

Settler leaders appeared unappealed by the plans, calling the pending approvals too modest in scope and charging that the tranche had shrunk by some 2,000 units planned for outside the major settlement blocs.

“All the outline plans in Samaria which weren’t in the ‘settlement blocs,’ according to the loose leftist definition, were removed…despite the clear promises that were given,” lamented Yossi Dagan, who chairs the Samaria Regional Council.

Construction work in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev, near the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank, on October 28, 2021 (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The current Israeli government is fundamentally split on West Bank settlements. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a prominent settler advocate who has faced pressure from within his embattled Yamina party to advance more construction.

“Building in Judea and Samaria is fundamental, essential, and goes without saying,” said Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked (Yamina).

The right-wing New Hope party, led by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, called West Bank settlement construction a proper response to the recent wave of Palestinian terror attacks.

“The enemies of Israel must know that the people of Israel are adamant in their desire to strengthen Jewish settlement, especially in Judea and Samaria,” New Hope said in a statement.

But the fragile, diverse coalition also contains the Islamist Ra’am party and left-wing Zionist parties, such as Meretz, who oppose settlement construction.

“This is immoral and harms the future of Israeli citizens,” Meretz lawmaker Mossi Raz said in a statement.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who oversees Israeli military rule in the West Bank, has advanced both settlement construction and legalized some Palestinian housing. In November, the Defense Ministry advanced around 1,300 Palestinian homes alongside some 3,000 settlement units.

During an official visit by then-vice president Biden in 2010, the Interior Ministry announced that 1,600 housing units would be built in the neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, in a part of Jerusalem captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 war. The declaration embarrassed Biden, and sparked a crisis with the Obama Administration.

Biden smoked at the time, saying in a statement that the new construction “undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.” Then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Biden for the timing of the announcement, and clarified that the beginning of construction on the particular project would likely take several years.

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