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Ahead of Possible Biden Visit, Israel, US Tread Carefully on Settlement Expansion

A recent Israeli decision to advance plans for the construction of thousands of housing units in the West Bank comes amid soaring tension between Israel and the Palestinians. It also comes ahead of a possible visit next month by US President Joe Biden, a trip that could be postponed due to regional friction.

Should the plans be finalized, it would be the largest number of units approved by the Israeli government since the Biden Administration took office.

Palestinians view the West Bank as part of their future state. Currently home to nearly half a million Jewish settlers living among millions of Palestinians, the Jewish settlements are considered illegal by the majority of the international community. The majority of Israelis, including many in the current government’s leadership, believe the territories are an integral part of the Jewish state.

Israel’s government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, has adopted a different approach to relations with the US after over a decade in which former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set the tone.

Aside from the years in which Netanyahu had a strong ally in the White House with former President Donald Trump, there were eight tumultuous years with another former president, Barack Obama.

“Netanyahu believed it was better to publicly confront the American administration, based on an assumption that there was not enough willingness to agree to disagree,” Ofer Zalzberg, Middle East program director at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute for Conflict Transformation, told The Media Line. “The Biden Administration shows more willingness to do this, because of the lessons learned from the Netanyahu period. This is particularly evident regarding the Palestinian issue.”

There is no doubt that the Bennett government and the Biden administration have completely different agendas regarding the Palestinians

As reports of Israeli intentions on settlement construction became public in recent weeks, condemnation from Washington was quick to follow.

“The Biden Administration has been clear from the outset. We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements which exacerbates tensions and undermines trust between the parties. Israel’s program of expanding settlements deeply damages the prospect for a two-state solution,” US State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter told reporters earlier in May.

But the strong words remain only rhetoric for now.

“There is no doubt that the Bennett government and the Biden Administration have completely different agendas regarding the Palestinians,” said Yaki Dayan, former chief of staff to Israeli foreign ministers Silvan Shalom and Tzipi Livni, and former Israeli consul general in Los Angeles. “Yet, the Americans understand that there is no peace process on the horizon or that the conflict cannot be solved at this point in time and they have no interest in attempting to do so.”

US midterm elections at the end of this year are also a factor. Biden is facing increasing pressure within the Democratic Party, especially from progressive members who favor a much tougher stance on Israel. Biden is sandwiched between exerting power within his party, while not forcefully calling Israel out on many issues including the settlements.

For Bennett, now seems to be the right time to advance construction plans.

“There is a feeling that the US does not have the ability to exert any kind of power that would prevent construction completely,” said Zalzberg.

The White House also is wary of possible political instability in Israel. With the Bennett coalition on the brink of coming apart, there is a recognition of the necessity to announce new construction in the West Bank. Bennett, who leads a heterogeneous coalition with parties who are against settlement expansion and parties who champion the cause, is eager to secure support, or at least less criticism, from within Israel’s right wing.

Bennett himself is a staunch opponent of the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and has voiced support in the past for immediate annexation of the West Bank, which Israeli captured in the Six-Day War in 1967. When Bennett entered office, he stated that there would be no major moves made toward annexation, nor moves on any other contentious topic.

Biden’s visit could strengthen Bennett’s political position since it would portray the prime minister as an esteemed player in the international arena.

“One of the main reasons for the visit is to strengthen the Bennett government,” said Dayan. “Before the announcement about the construction, there was a dialogue with the Biden Administration which resulted in a reduced number of units.”

Bennett can appear to be promoting sectorial interests while still appeasing the US. Members of Bennett’s Yamina party threatened to resign if construction was not be approved. And since Bennett heads a coalition without a parliamentary majority, he cannot afford to lose a single vote.

Still, settler leaders were critical of the prime minister, claiming more units should have been approved.

“There are no detailed agreements between the US and Israel on what can or cannot be built,” said Zalzberg. “There is awareness of the gap, the dialogue shrinks the gap which still clearly remains. As a result of such decisions, there is always tension and the feeling of a crisis between the sides.”

But it is probably just a feeling.

The last time that Biden visited Israel, as vice president in 2016, was one of the lowest points in Israel-US relations. The Netanyahu government had approved the building of housing units for Jews in east Jerusalem, a highly contentious matter which contributed to the great mistrust between Obama and the Israeli premier.

There is a feeling in the current administration, that an alternative Israeli government will be more right-wing and much more committed to the settlements, therefore there is a containment of the gaps and disagreements

“Compared to the two completely different ways of viewing the matter, what is now seen publicly is very minor,” said Dayan. “The Americans have no interest in investing energy in this conflict but also they prefer to see a Bennett-Lapid government, rather than a Netanyahu government.”

The memory of the Obama-Netanyahu discord is still fresh, and perhaps traumatic, both in Jerusalem and Washington.

“There is a feeling in the current administration, that an alternative Israeli government will be more right-wing and much more committed to the settlements, therefore there is a containment of the gaps and disagreements,” Zalzberg added.

Condemnation from the European Union and from UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland made less of an impression on Israeli officials.

Despite initial thoughts that the Biden Administration would change course vis-à-vis the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it appears the White House has adopted the Israeli approach of managing the conflict, rather than trying to resolve it. This makes it easier for Bennett to manage his coalition while giving his right-wing base the occasional gift of construction approval in West Bank settlements.

The visit slated for next month comes at a time when not only settlements are causing tension between Israelis and Palestinians. In recent weeks, a series of attacks carried out by Palestinians throughout Israel has killed 19 civilians. In response, Israel has launched raids into the West Bank in which over 30 Palestinians have been killed. Last week, during one of those raids, Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed after being shot in the head. Her death brought more tension, even though it is unclear who killed her. Scenes from Abu Akleh’s funeral procession, during which Israel Police officers used force against mourners, drew widespread international condemnation.

“If the flames will rise further, the Biden visit will not take place,” Dayan assessed.

A final date for the visit has yet to be made public.