Jun 18, 2023 - World

Israel moves to expedite West Bank settlement building ahead of U.S. official's visit

A picture shows a general view of the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev, near the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, in February. Photo:

A picture shows a general view of the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev, near the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, in February. Photo:

The Israeli cabinet on Sunday approved a resolution that will allow it to significantly speed up the process of approving new building in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Why it matters: The resolution limits the amount of control the prime minister and the defense minister have over approving building plans in the settlements, effectively curbing the ability of the U.S. and other countries to press the government to suspend such plans.

  • The move also comes as Barbara Leaf, the State Department’s senior Middle East diplomat, is expected to arrive in Israel on Monday for talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials.
  • The Biden administration expressed concern over the Israeli government's decision.

Details: The authority to approve building plans will be transferred from Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to ultranationalist pro-settler Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

  • Building plans will only need to be approved at the political level twice: during the first stage when the initial planning begins and at the last stage when tenders for contractors are being issued.
  • For decades, such plans needed to be given a “green light” at the political level four to five times. This slowed down the building in the settlements and allowed several opportunities to stop such plans.

The other side: Hussein al-Sheikh, the Palestinian minister for civilian affairs, said the Palestinian Authority will boycott Monday's meeting of the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Economic Committee because of the cabinet decision.

  • The Biden administration has made a lot of effort to convince the parties to convene the committee after a yearslong hiatus.
  • “The Palestinian leadership will study a number of other measures and decisions for implementation related to the relationship with Israel," al-Sheikh said.

What they're saying: The U.S. is "concerned by reports of changes to Israel’s system of settlement administration that expedite the planning and approvals of settlements," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement later Sunday.

  • "As has been longstanding policy, the United States opposes such unilateral actions that make a two-state solution more difficult to achieve and are an obstacle to peace," Miller added.
  • The U.S. called on Israel to fulfill previous commitments it has made and "return to dialogue aimed at de-escalation" in the West Bank.

What to watch: Smotrich also announced on Sunday that the government committee that approves new planning and building in the settlements will convene next Monday to approve about 4,500 new housing units in the settlements.

  • The Israeli government recently told the Biden administration it intends to announce the building and planning of thousands of new housing units in West Bank settlements before the end of June, as Axios previously reported.
  • Miller said in his statement that the U.S. is "deeply troubled by the Israeli government’s reported decision to advance planning for over 4,000 settlement units in the West Bank."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller's statement.

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