From the Settlers to Biden, Israel's West Bank Plans Try to Appease Almost All

U.S. officials were prepared to swallow the approval of 2,000 to 3,000 housing units in the West Bank in light of the shaky Bennett government’s need to shore up support among right-wing voters, an Israeli source said

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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New houses being constructed in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Bruchin near the Palestinian town of Nablus, in October.
New houses being constructed in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Bruchin near the Palestinian town of Nablus, in October.Credit: Ariel Schalit /AP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The convening of the Higher Planning Council of Israel’s Civil Administration later this week, in order to advance the construction of 4,000 housing units in West Bank settlements, provides all of those involved with a chance for political spin.

That includes wavering Yamina Knesset member Nir Orbach, who has already claimed credit for the accomplishment on behalf of the right. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett can attribute the limited scope of the construction plans to American pressure and concern over doing anything that would lead to a cancellation of President Joe Biden’s scheduled June trip to Israel. And finally, there is the Biden administration itself, which has already been quick to publicly condemn approval of the plans even though it put pressure on Jerusalem to temper the final list of plans.

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According to an Israeli source, administration officials were prepared to swallow the approval of 2,000 to 3,000 housing units that are not deep into West Bank territory or at locations where there is particular tension but would show understanding for the shaky Bennett government’s need to shore up support among right-wing voters with a more extensive list.

Officials in Jerusalem anticipated the condemnation issued on Friday by State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter. In a briefing to reporters, she said that the administration “strongly oppose[s] the expansion of settlements, which exacerbates tensions and undermines trust between the parties.” The plan, she added, “damages the prospects for a two-state solution.”

In October, State Department spokesman Ned Price made similar comments after the convening of the Higher Planning Council was announced last time around. The United States was in dialogue with the Israeli government on the issue, he said at the time. “We continue to raise this issue directly with senior Israeli officials in our private discussions,” he said.

There are a number of “partners” who have been involved in preparing the plans that are up for consideration by the planning council next week. Defense Minister Benny Gantz developed a relatively broad set of possible construction plans in coordination with Prime Minister Bennett. After that was completed, diplomatic officials began considering the various objections to the plans with the Americans, the Israeli army and the settlement leadership. There were discussions on the needs of the settlements, security demands and concerns regarding a diplomatic confrontation that would harm Israel’s standing.

The planning council had been due to convene a few weeks ago, but the session was deferred due to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the desire to limit the exacerbation of tensions.

The final construction list is a compromise of sorts that would lead both the Biden administration and the settlement leadership to publicly express disappointment for their own reasons. But it also provides the two sides with an opportunity to allow the process to move ahead – each in accordance with their own interests – be it to shore up the existing government or the settlement enterprise.

The final list submitted to the planning council balances the demands of the sides and provides what one official involved in preparing it called “the only possible reasonable result.” One way or another, the number of housing units that are ultimately approved will be in keeping with assessments that the Israeli government had at the beginning of the consultation process.

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