May 23, 2023 - World

Scoop: Israel tells U.S. it won't turn Homesh outpost into new settlement

Israeli right-wing activists and settlers take part in a protest march at the West Bank outpost of Homesh in Dec. 2021. Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images

Israeli right-wing activists and settlers take part in a protest march at the West Bank outpost of Homesh in Dec. 2021. Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images

The Israeli government told the Biden administration it would not turn the Homesh outpost deep inside the occupied West Bank into a new settlement, despite a recently-signed decree that allows Israelis to enter the area, three U.S. and Israeli officials told me.

Why it matters: The Biden administration is concerned that if Homesh is rebuilt as a formal settlement, it will make it even harder to form an eventual contiguous Palestinian state. Homesh is located in an area between the northern Palestinian cities of Nablus and Jenin where there are no Israeli settlements.

  • U.S. officials have repeatedly urged the Israeli government to not take any steps in the occupied West Bank that would escalate tensions, including settlement building.

Catch up quick: During the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza, Israel also evacuated Homesh and three other settlements in the northern West Bank and banned Israelis from entering the area.

  • In return, the Bush administration agreed that the large settlement blocks in the West Bank adjacent to the territory lines drawn before the 1967 war would stay part of Israel in any future peace agreement with the Palestinians.
  • This understanding between then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and then-President George W. Bush was enshrined in an official exchange of letters between the two governments.

Radical settlers several years ago established an illegal outpost in Homesh and claimed it was a Yeshiva, or a religious school.

  • The Israeli military has repeatedly evacuated the outpost, which was established on private Palestinian land, but settlers would rebuild.
  • The Israeli Knesset earlier this year passed a law that repealed the 2005 Israeli disengagement from the northern occupied West Bank and allows Israeli citizens to enter the area between Jenin and Nablus provided a decree is issued by the IDF.

Driving the news: The commander of the IDF central command last Thursday signed a decree that allows Israelis to enter the Homesh area.

  • The new decree was a result of a political agreement between Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and the ultranationalist Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich.
  • The new decree was an attempt to quash an appeal by the Palestinian owners of the land in the Supreme Court.
  • The Ministry of Defense said the illegal outpost will be legalized by moving it from private land to nearby alleged state land, which is still in the same area.

What they're saying: The State Department on Sunday issued a strong statement against the decree, saying it was “inconsistent” with the Israeli commitment in the Bush-Sharon letters.

  • State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller also said the new order is a violation of the current Israeli government’s commitments to the Biden administration that were given as part of the summits in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh earlier this year.
  • “Advancing Israeli settlements in the West Bank is an obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution," Miller said.

Behind the scenes: U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and other U.S. officials also protested the move in private conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s advisers, U.S. and Israeli officials said.

  • The U.S. and Israeli officials said the Israeli side made it clear to the Biden administration that it has no intention of rebuilding the Homesh settlement and stressed the new order was signed only to allow the moving of the Homesh outpost from private land to state land.
  • Israeli officials also told their U.S. counterparts this move was in response to domestic political constraints and to prevent Netanyahu’s radical right-wing coalition partners from destabilizing the government, the U.S. and Israeli officials said.
  • The Israeli Prime Minister’s office declined to comment.

Between the lines: In private conversations with the Biden administration, the Israeli government rejected the claim that it has violated its commitment in the Bush-Sharon letters, Israeli officials said.

  • The Israelis claimed the Obama administration already reneged on the letters in 2009, the Israeli officials added.
  • Miller said in the daily press briefing on Monday that the U.S. position on the letters has been consistent across administrations.
  • “We have not withdrawn that letter.  We do not believe that [the Israeli government has] withdrawn their obligations under the letter," he said.

Worth noting: The Haaretz newspaper last week reported that Smotrich, who is also a minister in the Defense Ministry in charge of West Bank settlements, conducted several meetings with officials from different government ministries around a plan to double the number of settlers in the West Bank from 500,000 to 1 million.

  • Israeli and U.S. officials said that during the discussions over Homesh, Netanyauh’s aides have made clear to their Biden administration counterparts that Smotrich’s plan doesn’t represent Netanyahu’s position and there is no intention to implement it.
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