Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces yesterday he will approve a bonanza of new settlements in the West Bank in the coming days, bringing the year-end total to 6,500, nearly three times the number of settlements approved in all of 2016.
Netanyahu’s office said in a statement Tuesday more 3,736 units will be built in the West Bank, an increase over more than 1,000 from last year. The breakdown of where the settlements will be constructed includes locations important to key figures in the Trump administration and Israel.
The settlement of Beit El near Ramallah will receive one of the highest increases with 296 new homes, according to the preliminary numbers from the Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now. Previously the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, chaired an American fundraising arm to Beit El, which was a source of protest at his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this year.
Nearly 150 units are expected to be approved in the settlement of Nokdim, where Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman lives.
A further 31 units will be approved for Hebron, the West Bank’s largest Palestinian city where Israeli settlers dominate the downtown quarter. This was the first time in 15 years where the Israeli government granted construction inside of Hebron.
Despite what appears at face value to be a major win for Israel’s settler lobby, the most vocal critics came from members of Netanyahu’s own Likud party and settler leaders who accused him of grossly inflating the number of units Israel will build over the Green Line. A list of units circulated by Peace Now shows more than 2,000 buildings that had already been approved, including the 296 to Beit El. The actual number of new settlements is estimated closer to 600. This was not lost on Netanyahu’s allies, who made rare comments lambasting the prime minister.
“There can’t be a sense of breaking promises between partners,” said Netanyahu’s Welfare Minister Haim Katz, according to the Times of Israel.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein added he is “not afraid of battles,” against Netanyahu. “There were all sorts of promises about construction and roads. Suddenly the timing is not quite right and we have to wait for further developments and a few other things. I think the timing will never be right if we don’t know what we want,” he said.
Earlier this month the Yesha Council, an Israeli pro-settler lobby sent a letter to Netanyahu demanding increased spending on settlement infrastructure, accusing the prime minister of “a discriminatory policy,” against settlements.
The Yesha Council has been waiting months for a meeting with Israeli planning officials in order to bid for more settlements, yet reportedly the planners delayed meeting with the settler leaders at the behest of President Donald Trump, according to Haaretz.
Trump did not weigh in directly on the expansion. But an official from the White House told Haaretz “President Trump has publicly and privately expressed his concerns regarding settlements and the administration has made clear that unrestrained settlement activity does not advance the prospect for peace,” adding, “At the same time the administration recognizes that past demands for a settlement freeze have not helped advance peace talks.”
Reports out of Israel suggest Trump is not making an assertive statement because he made a private deal with Netanyahu on the number of settlements Israel can construct without facing pressure from Washington. Accordingly, the new housing starts in the occupied Palestinian territory are thought to have fit within the parameters they set—which at 600 units instead of 3,500 still topple last year’s numbers.
In a September meeting with settler lobby heads, Netanyahu revealed part of a recent conversation with the U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and the U.S. envoy Jason Greenblatt who is tasked with brokering Middle East peace, along with the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner. According to attendees who spoke to Haaretz, Netanyahu gave the American officials advance notice of the coming approval of thousands of new units in the West Bank.
Even so, the settler leaders were not satisfied.
“We told Netanyahu that he is not meeting our expectations of him, especially after the change in the American administration,” one settler head later recounted to Haaretz.
In Ramallah, Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said in a statement, “Clearly, Israel is bent on entrenching the military occupation and its illegal settlement enterprise, further reaffirming its intentions of displacing Palestine and replacing it with ‘Greater Israel’.”
“Rather than becoming party to Israel’s unlawful breach of international law and conventions, the global community should hold Israel accountable for acting outside the law before it destroys the prospects of a viable Palestinian state, peace and stability indefinitely,” she continued.