Aug 11, 2021 - World

Israel to approve new construction in West Bank for both settlers and Palestinians

Benny Gantz (L), Yair Lapid (C) and Naftali Bennett. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz today announced that a committee will convene next week to authorize new housing units in the occupied West Bank for both Jewish settlers and for Palestinians living in "Area C," which is controlled by Israel.

Why it matters: West Bank settlements policy is among the most polarizing issues in Israel and could destabilize Bennett's ideologically diverse coalition. It's also one of the biggest challenges for Bennett to navigate as he prepares for an expected meeting with President Biden later this month.

Gantz's announcement ends an unofficial moratorium on the approval of new settlements that had lasted ten months. It's also the first time in several years that Israel has approved new Palestinian homes in Area C.

  • Gantz said the committee would authorize 2,200 new housing units in West Bank settlements — 900 of which are already in the final planning stages and ready for construction — while also noting that permits would be issued for 1,000 housing units for Palestinians in "Area C."

Between the lines: Gantz's announcement was expected, but the key question had been whether it would be made before or after Bennett met Biden.

  • Israeli officials tell me the decision was to get the announcement out of the way before the meeting so it wouldn't overshadow it, and because approving the plans after the meeting could have been perceived as disrespect towards Biden.

Behind the scenes: Aides to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had discussed settlements policy in meetings at the White House and State Department last week, notifying their counterparts that the settlements committee would convene soon.

  • Bennett's aides — foreign policy adviser Shimrit Meir and national security adviser Eyal Hulata — said the government would show restraint, base its decisions on needs arising from "natural growth," and not take steps that would make a future peace agreement more difficult, the Israeli officials say.
  • The Biden administration opposes any new settlement building, and the Palestinian Authority strenuously objects to any new construction.
  • What they're saying: "The Biden administration knows we are going to build. We know they don’t like it, and both sides don’t want to reach a confrontation around this issue," an Israel official told me.

In the meetings, Biden administration officials said they expect Israel to avoid provocative steps like demolishing Palestinian homes, evicting Palestinians or establishing new illegal outposts in the West Bank.

  • The U.S. side also raised recent instances of violence by settlers against Palestinians and was told that Bennett would show no tolerance for such violence, the Israeli officials say.
  • The U.S. officials also asked that Israel take steps to help the Palestinian Authority cope with the current economic crisis.
  • The latest: Israel notified the Biden administration ahead of Gantz's announcement, Israeli officials say.

Flashback: Settlement construction was one of the main points of contention between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. Obama declined to veto a 2016 UN Security Council resolution reiterating that the settlements are illegal.

  • During Donald Trump's presidency, settlement building increased by 150% in comparison to Obama’s second term. Most of the new buildings planned during Trump’s term were in isolated settlements deep into the West Bank.
  • What’s next: Unlike during the Trump administration, there won't be a U.S.-Israeli mechanism to coordinate and approve construction in the settlements.
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