The Israeli government is preparing to approve plans for new construction in West Bank settlements, but wants to proceed without causing friction with the Biden administration, Israeli officials tell me.
Behind the scenes: Aides to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett discussed settlements policy in meetings at the White House and State Department last week, notifying their counterparts that the committee that approves planning and zoning in the settlements will likely convene soon.
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 seeks to deepen ties with the Biden administration.
- There has been an unofficial moratorium on the approval of new settlements for nearly 10 months — at first due to feuding within the previous Israeli government, and since January because of the risk of a fight with the new U.S. administration.
- In the D.C. meetings, Bennett's aides — foreign policy adviser Shimrit Meir and national security adviser Eyal Hulata — said the government would show restraint and base its decisions on needs arising from "natural growth."
- They stressed that the government wouldn't take steps that would create new facts on the ground or make a future peace agreement more difficult, the Israeli officials say.
What they're saying: “We will act in a responsible and reasonable way and avoid provocations regarding settlements. 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.
- The Biden administration opposes any new settlement building, and any announcement on new construction will provoke strenuous opposition from the Palestinian Authority.
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.
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.
- Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who is in charge of the settlements committee, is expected to decide soon when it will convene and how many building plans will be put up for approval. Bennett has already agreed in principle for the committee to convene and discuss new housing units, Israeli officials say.
- Gantz is also expected to approve the construction of 1,000 new housing units in Palestinian villages in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel controls planning and zoning. That will be the first time Israel has approved new construction for Palestinian homes in Area C in many years and is an attempt to balance the upcoming decision on settlement building.
What to watch: The key question is whether any decision on settlements will be made before a planned meeting between Bennett and President Biden later this month.