US Scolds Israel Over New Home Construction in West Bank Settlements
It is some of the strongest condemnation yet from Washington on Israeli actions
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz held what was described as a “tense” phone call Tuesday centering on Israel’s approval of plans to build thousands of new settlement homes in the West Bank.
Blinken’s frustration was over the number of housing units, totaling some 3,000 homes, agreed to by Israel’s Ministry of Defense.
He called the construction plans “unacceptable,” Axios first reported, citing three unnamed Israeli officials.
The harsh criticism by President Joe Biden’s administration and its condemnation is some of the strongest in years on Israel.
“We are deeply concerned about the Israeli government’s plan to advance thousands of settlement units,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
“We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which is completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and to ensure calm, and it damages the prospects for a two-state solution,” he said.
“We also view plans for the retroactive legalization of illegal outposts as unacceptable,” he said.
When something like that happens, it bothers the Americans because it means that they have to re-deal with the Palestinian problem, which they don’t like to do. Everybody knows they are not going to invest too much on the Middle East at large and the Palestinian issue in particular.
Dr. Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, characterized the relationship between the Biden administration and the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as “part of the new reality.”
He told The Media Line that the US is facing more pressing issues domestically and internationally that it wants to deal with, and the Palestinians isn’t one of them.
“The Biden administration has little interest in dealing with the Palestinian issue,” Rabi said, adding that the “tension” with the Americans is because “they wouldn’t like Israel to violate unwritten rules, like adding settlements in the West Bank.”
“When something like that happens, it bothers the Americans because it means that they have to re-deal with the Palestinian problem, which they don’t like to do. Everybody knows they are not going to invest too much on the Middle East at large and the Palestinian issue in particular,” he also said.
Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, told The Media Line that the relationship between the two strategic allies “isn’t business as usual, it is a concern of the United States and has been throughout the years.”
Ayalon says “the only change and aberration” in US policy on settlements and Jerusalem came during the Trump administration, when the US provided almost absolute support to Israel.
Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city and shut down the US consulate in Jerusalem that dealt with Palestinian affairs. He gave a green light to Israel to continue building on on West Bank land, and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, toured a settlement at the end of his term.
Ronni Shaked, coordinator of the Middle East Unit at the The Harry S. Truman Research Institute for The Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, recognizes a change in the current US administration’s approach to Israel.
“It’s not the same as it was before,” he said. The Biden administration will make “efforts in order to change the way that Israel is behaving in the occupied territories,” he added.
But Ayalon noted that the criticism was primarily coming from the State Department, rather than the White House, which makes it less critical.
“If it was a serious issue, Biden would have talked to Bennett. At the end of the day, I think this will end with the statement from the State Department and the phone call between Blinken and Gantz. I think this would be it for now,” he said.
Many Israeli observers agree that it’s in the US’ best strategic interest to preserve the Bennett government. Ayalon says the US doesn’t want to risk destabilizing the Israeli government, adding, “they have a lot of moving parts, they have the Iranian issues.”
“The last thing they now need is for the government to fall. This will lead to a long paralysis; instability and they can’t demand anything when there is an interim government. Things with elections here [in Israel] could take a whole year,” Ayalon said. He warns that if new elections are held soon, the results may not please the Americans, “and, worst yet for them, Netanyahu is re-elected.”
Shaked says the White House understands the challenges facing this Israeli government and, because they do, they are going to deal with it in such a way that it won’t lead to its collapse.
Despite that, he says, “Washington is moving forward with its commitment to reopen its consulate in East Jerusalem.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a statement voiced “strong rejection” of the approvals, and said the US needs “to implement its pledge to reject settlements and unilateral (Israeli) measures.”
The Biden administration deals with the Israeli government gently
Esmat Mansour, a Ramallah-based political analyst, told The Media Line that the Biden administration’s tone toward Israel may be changing in comparison to the previous administration.
He says the White House has so far not given the current Israeli government something over which to collapse, but that “it went too far in its settlement-building declaration.”
“It showed a lot of patience in dealing with the Israeli government in exchange for Netanyahu not returning to head the government. Biden did not pressure Bennett on any issue during his visit to Washington last summer; Biden did not talk about the negotiations with the Palestinians or the peace process or stopping settlements and other issues. The Biden administration deals with the Israeli government gently,” he said.
But Mansour hopes the way the US secretary of state responded to the announcement of further settlement building will find listeners in Israel.
“What Washington wants is that Israel not take steps that would weaken the PA,” he said.
About 475,000 Israeli Jews already live in settlements in the West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law, on land Palestinians claim as part of their future state.
The Israeli government is headed by right-wing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who was able to put together an ideologically disparate eight-party coalition, with members ranging from the Jewish religious far-right to Israel’s Islamist party.
Bennett is a former head of a settler lobby group, and says he opposes Palestinian statehood.
He has publicly dismissed attempts to revive peace talks with the Palestinians, saying he will focus on economic improvements.