Emboldened by Trump, Israel approves a wave of West Bank settler colony expansion
JERUSALEM—In a pointed act of defiance against international pressure, Israel on Tuesday approved a huge new wave of settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
The announcement made clear that just a few days into the Trump presidency, the Israeli government feels emboldened to shake off the constraints imposed by the Obama administration and more willing to disregard international condemnation.
Leaders from 70 countries met in Paris more than a week ago and issued a warning that the two-state peace solution was imperiled by Israel’s expanding of settlements in Palestinian-claimed territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as violence against Israelis. But even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed the principle of side-by-side states, in the past few days Israel’s campaign of settlement building has only accelerated.
The first step came on Sunday, when the Jerusalem City Council approved 566 new housing units in East Jerusalem that had been delayed over President Barack Obama’s objections.
Then on Tuesday, the Israeli government announced that 2,500 new housing units would be built in the West Bank. Officials said most would be built in “settlement blocs,” referring to areas of the West Bank that Israel has long intended to keep under any future agreement with the Palestinians, possibly in return for land swaps along the boundary that separated Israel from the West Bank before the 1967 war. But in years of failed negotiations, the Israelis and Palestinians have never agreed on the size or location of such blocs.
The Israeli Ministry of Defense said 900 of the newly announced homes were being planned for Ariel, an urban settlement of about 20,000 residents that Israel considers a “bloc,” but is strategically — and problematically — located in the heart of the West Bank. It also said it would bring to the cabinet a plan to build a large industrial zone to create work for Palestinians in the southern West Bank.
“We are going back to normal life in Judea and Samaria,” Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hard-line defense minister, said in a statement announcing the new settlement building, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.
Asked about the Israeli move, the White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, said that Mr. Trump was still getting his team together and that there would be discussions with Mr. Netanyahu. “Israel continues to be a huge ally of the United States,” Mr. Spicer said. “He wants to grow closer with Israel to make sure that it gets the full respect that it deserves in the Middle East, and that’s what he’s going to do.
Palestinian officials immediately denounced the new plans.
“Once again, the Israeli government has proved that it is more committed to land theft and colonialism than to the two-state solution and the requirements for peace and stability,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said in a statement.
“It is evident that Israel is exploiting the inauguration of the new American administration to escalate its violations and the prevention of any existence of a Palestinian state,” she added, calling on the United States and other international players to take concrete measures against Israeli settlement activities.
Israel’s campaign of settlement construction has brought widespread criticism. A month ago, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as having no legal validity and constituting a “flagrant violation under international law” after the Obama administration decided not to veto the measure.
Days later, the departing secretary of state, John Kerry, rebuked Israel’s settlement activities in an impassioned speech, saying, “The status quo is leading toward one state and perpetual occupation.”
But with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in its 50th year, the Israeli government, dominated by right-wing and religious parties, is clearly expecting a friendlier approach from the White House after years of tension with the Obama administration.
David M. Friedman, the bankruptcy lawyer President Trump has nominated as his ambassador to Israel, has led a fund-raising arm of the settlement movement and has dismissed the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He has declared that he intends to work in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, where the American Embassy has been for decades, under the State Department’s insistence that the holy city’s status be determined as part of a broader deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
It was not immediately clear whether the Israeli announcement had been coordinated in advance with Mr. Trump’s team. But beyond Mr. Netanyahu’s apparent attempt to chart a new course with Mr. Trump, he is also under intense pressure from the right flank of his governing coalition to demonstrate where his domestic loyalties lie.
Naftali Bennett, the education minister and leader of the staunchly pro-settlement Jewish Home party, has been goading the prime minister to seize the moment and take the extreme step of beginning a process of annexing the West Bank settlements to Israel.
“Netanyahu is facing a historic decision: sovereignty or Palestine,” Mr. Bennett said on Monday. “We urge Netanyahu, don’t miss an opportunity that comes along once every 50 years.”
Mr. Netanyahu appeared to postpone any discussion of annexation: “This is no time for off-the-cuff decisions or political dictations, and this is no time for surprises.” This, he added, “is the time for considered, responsible diplomacy among friends.”
The prime minister’s office said that in a phone conversation with Mr. Trump on Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu discussed the peace process and hoped to forge a “common vision” with Mr. Trump “to advance peace and security in the region, with no daylight between the United States and Israel.” No more details were given.
The peace process has been at an impasse since the last round of American-brokered talks collapsed in the spring of 2014. During the nine months of talks, Mr. Netanyahu attempted to appease Israel’s right wing by advancing plans for about 13,000 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, infuriating the Palestinian side. The weakened Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who appeared reluctant to take risks of his own, never responded to the ideas that Mr. Kerry’s team had formulated for a framework to guide further negotiations.
Now, with the change of American administrations, some Israeli analysts have recommended that Mr. Netanyahu take the opportunity to try to reinstate understandings that Israel had with President George W. Bush, who wrote in a 2004 letter that “already existing major Israeli population centers” should be taken into consideration in redrawing the borders between Israel and the West Bank — a reference to settlement blocs.
But that came in the context of Israel’s plans to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and from a section of the northern West Bank. And the case of Ariel serves to illustrate the contentiousness of unilaterally defining the blocs.
Israelis have long labeled Ariel part of their national “consensus,” meaning that it would be included in Israel’s borders under any peace deal, and it often appears as one of the regular dots on Israeli weather maps. But Palestinian negotiators have always rejected that idea, arguing that Israeli control over Ariel would preclude the territorial contiguity of a Palestinian state. They also note that Ariel sits on a major aquifer.
According to Tuesday’s announcement, 20 of the new units are to be built in Beit El, a settlement deep in the West Bank that has particularly benefited from Mr. Friedman’s fund-raising activities. The government promised in 2012 to build 300 units in Beit El, a settlement of about 7,000 residents, to compensate for the court-ordered evacuation of part of a neighborhood there that was illegally built on private Palestinian land. So far, the promise has remained unfulfilled.
According to Israel’s Ministry of Defense, bids will now be solicited for the construction of about 900 of the 2,500 new units around the West Bank. But the rest, including most of those planned for Ariel, still have to go through additional planning phases, a bureaucratic process that can take months, if not years, and requires additional government approval at each stage.
Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization representing the more than 400,000 settlers in the West Bank, said in a statement, “We hope that this is just the beginning of a wave of new building across our ancestral homeland after eight very difficult years.”
But some in the settler camp played down the construction plans and expressed suspicions about Mr. Netanyahu’s intentions.
“We are not stupid,” Bezalel Smotrich, a legislator from the Jewish Home party, wrote in a post on his Facebook page. Objecting to the government announcement mostly describing the advancement of existing plans in settlement blocs, Mr. Smotrich accused Mr. Netanyahu of “throwing a candy” to the settlers and playing “public relations tricks.”
Photo: Construction in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim on Sunday. The Israeli government is showing signs that it is increasingly willing to disregard international condemnation of its settlements. Source: Mahmoud Illean/Associated Press