Oct 6, 2021 - World

Biden quietly puts pressure on Israel over West Bank settlements

Yair Lapid and Joe Biden

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with President Biden in the Oval Office. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/Pool/Getty

The Biden administration has been privately pressuring the Israeli government to show restraint ahead of a key decision on settlement building in the West Bank, Israeli and U.S. officials tell Axios.

Why it matters: Both sides want to keep this from becoming a point of tension between President Biden, who considers the settlements a threat to the two-state solution, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads a pro-settler party and is under political pressure on the issue.

  • Most of the international community views the West Bank settlements as illegal, and the Palestinians argue that Israel is claiming more and more land that should be part of their future state.

How it happened: Biden told Bennett in their Aug. 27 meeting at the White House that he expected Israel to show restraint on the settlements issue, and Bennett replied that Israel would build only according to needs arising from “natural growth."

  • But when he returned from Washington, Bennett told settler leaders that when Biden pressed him on settlements, he told him "no," according to a report last week from the Times of Israel.
  • Soon after that report, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Jerusalem, Michael Ratney, reiterated Biden's call for restraint to senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office. He also raised particular concerns about possible construction in the sensitive E1 area near Jerusalem, which could prevent territorial contiguity between north and south in the West Bank.

The backstory: Bennett had wanted to get one big step on settlements out of the way before traveling to Washington: the approval of 2,000 new housing units in the Israeli settlements and about 1,000 new housing units in Palestinian villages.

  • Instead, a strike by the workers union of one of the departments in the Ministry of Defense postponed the move.

Between the lines: It would have been much easier to approve the new units before Biden explicitly pressed Bennett on this issue. In the six weeks since the visit, the meeting to approve the housing units hasn't been rescheduled.

What they're saying: "There is great sensitivity right now with the Americans about settlements. This is the reason the approval of new planning and building in the settlements is held up for now," a senior Israeli official tells me.

  • A senior U.S. official told me the Biden administration has been engaged with the Israeli government regarding settlements on a weekly basis since the meeting between Bennett and the president.
  • A U.S. Embassy spokesperson declined to comment on private conversations but reiterated a call for "all parties to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution. That includes settlement activity."
  • The Prime Minister's Office also said it wouldn't comment on private conversations with U.S. officials.

The issue also requires a balancing act from Biden, who is committed to a two-state solution but will also want to avoid a public fight on the issue like the one between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu — particularly as Bennett's government remains unstable and Netanyahu is waiting in the wings as opposition leader.

What to watch: It's unclear when the committee that approves settlement building will be convened or whether Bennett will decrease the number of housing units up for approval.

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