Netanyahu Says West Bank Settlement Construction Could Harm post-Iran Deal Talks With U.S.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem August 16, 2015. Credit: Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Monday night’s cabinet meeting that he does not intend to approve further settlement construction in order not to harm talks with the United States about security understandings and upgrading the Israel Defense Forces’ capabilities following the nuclear deal with Iran.

Settlement construction was one of the major points of contention during the cabinet session. Habayit Hayehudi ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayalet Shaked, together with Likud’s Zeev Elkin, demanded that Netanyahu immediately announce new construction in the settlements in reaction to the wave of terrorist attacks, and even set a policy of building a new neighborhood or settlement after every attack.

Two senior Israeli officials, who are familiar with the cabinet proceedings but asked to remain nameless due to the sensitivity of the matter, said that Netanyahu rejected Bennett, Shaked and Elkin’s demand. One of the reasons the prime minister cited for not approving new construction was the Iranian nuclear deal.

Netanyahu said that following Israel’s long struggle against the deal and the accompanying tensions with the White House, a process has begun of lowering the flames, returning to orderly dialogue as much as possible and entering negotiations over how Israel will be compensated for the nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers. Israel is interested in a “package deal” including security understandings alongside upgrading the IDF’s offensive and defensive capabilities.

The senior officials noted that Netanyahu clarified that a month before his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House on November 9, he does not want fresh tensions with the American administration. Netanyahu pointed out that an announcement of new construction in the settlements would divert the focus of the dialogue between Israel and the U.S. away from the Iranian issue and harm the formulation of the best “security package” following the nuclear deal.

The cabinet session included a long monologue from Netanyahu about how he has defended the settlement enterprise since 2009 in face of heavy pressure from Obama. He sharply criticized Bennett and Shaked, telling them: “I have withstood heavy pressure. You’re talking now, but if you were in my place you wouldn’t take the pressure for even an hour.”

On Tuesday Channel 2 reported that Netanyahu and his envoy Isaac Molho told ministers that the American administration had issued an “ultimatum” according to which if the cabinet decided on building in the settlements, the U.S. will be forced not to use its veto power on the resolution on the Israel-Palestine issue that France apparently intends to put to the United Nations Security Council.

The State Department in Washington denied that the U.S. administration presented such an “ultimatum,” as did senior figures in the prime minister’s bureau. However, they did not deny that prior to the cabinet session messages were passed from the American administration to Netanyahu’s bureau.

American and Israeli officials said that it was clarified that the U.S. backs the security activity Israel is carrying out against the wave of terrorist attacks, but a cabinet decision to approve construction in the settlements would force the administration to publish a condemnation and divert the discourse from Israel’s right to self-defense back to the settlements.