The Trump administration is asking Israel to carry out a series of goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians, both in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the security cabinet last Thursday, when he announced plans to curb construction in the settlements.
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These measures should have an immediate effect on the Palestinians’ economic situation, ministers and senior officials who attended the meeting told Haaretz.
During Thursday’s meeting, Netanyahu said several times that U.S. President Donald Trump is determined to advance the Israeli-Palestinian issue and for the two parties to reach an agreement, the sources said.
Netanyahu said he did not know exactly how Trump wants to make progress, but the prime minister stressed the importance of Israel demonstrating goodwill and not being seen as the one causing the U.S. initiative to fail.
Three ministers and two senior government officials who participated in Thursday’s meeting, or who were updated on the details of it, briefed Haaretz on what happened behind the scenes during the nighttime discussions about contacts between the United States and Israel on the Palestinian issue.
All five asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter, and also because it was a closed meeting.
Netanyahu said he intends to agree to the American demands for additional goodwill steps in the West Bank and Gaza, with the potential for an immediate uptick for the Palestinian economy. He did not provide details about what moves would be taken, but a number of the ministers present understood that one possible step would include granting the Palestinians permission to build in Area C (some 60 percent of the West Bank, under full Israeli civil and security control).
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who has blocked previous efforts by Netanyahu to take similar actions, once more presented his reservations. Bennett said he expects that any actions Israel takes on the ground, and the goodwill gestures to the Palestinians, will not expand into moves with major foreign policy implications.
The leader of the far-right Habayit Hayehudi party added that if Netanyahu does consider such moves, he expects the matter to be brought back to the security cabinet for a further discussion and approval.
Netanyahu scheduled a meeting with the Israel Defense Forces’ Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, and other officials, for Sunday, when they will attempt to put together the package of goodwill gestures and other steps.
Even though the Prime Minister’s Office stated in recent days no limitations will exist on construction in the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem situated over the Green Line, Netanyahu sounded less emphatic in the security cabinet meeting and hinted that there would not be full normalization on this issue.
“There are no limitations on construction in Jerusalem, but we will need to act wisely,” he told ministers, hinting it’s possible that certain limitations may be imposed on building in the capital.
In addition, Netanyahu informed the security cabinet a decision had been made to limit the activities of the highest-level planning committee of the IDF’s Civil Administration, which approves building plans for the settlements. Instead of meeting once a week, as was customary, the committee will now meet only once every three months.
Netanyahu told the ministers that each of the committee’s meetings – during which decisions are made and then revealed about building plans for the settlements, even if they are only minor technical decisions – leads to media reports, which then causes friction and tension with the international community. Accumulating such plans and having them brought up for discussion only four times a year will limit the amount of global protest, added Netanyahu.
At the same time, limiting the activities of the IDF’s planning committee could also have an influence on the number of plans approved, as well as the pace at which they advance.
A senior member on the Yesha Council of settlements in the West Bank said fewer committee meetings would mean a slowdown in the planning process. It would be enough for Netanyahu or Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to cancel just a single committee meeting for supposedly technical reasons in order to create a situation in which no plans are approved for a full six months.
In a meeting of the heads of the coalition, Bennet turned to Netanyahu and said that the new policy on settlement construction will be tested by how it would be implemented. "I ask that after Passover a date would be set for the Supreme Planning Committee to convene in order to approve construction plans," said the education minister. Netanyahu did not respond, but his chief of staff, Horowitz, said that he will check and will soon schedule a committee meeting.
Netanyahu also told the ministers Thursday that stricter limitations and supervision will be imposed on construction in unauthorized outposts. It is assumed no further construction will be allowed in existing unauthorized outposts, and new ones will be removed shortly after they go up.
Even though the new construction policy is not part of an agreement with the United States, or even part of the unofficial understandings with the White House, the Trump administration is following their implementation very closely, said Netanyahu.
Israel must keep to its new policy of restraint and implement it strictly, without trying to deceive the Trump administration, because the Americans know about every house being built in the settlements, he added.
At Sunday's Likud ministerial meeting Monday morning, Horowitz, who manages communications with the White House on the issue of the settlements, said that originally the Americans had requested a complete freeze in construction. "It started from zero," Horowitz told the ministers. "The result we reached was much better." Prime Minister Netanyahu said in response: "I won't go into it here, but you don’t know how right he is."
The Prime Minister's Bureau said it would not address the content of the security cabinet meeting, regardless of whether the details in the report were true or not.