Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expects to reach understandings with the United States within a few weeks on curbing construction in the settlements, according to an Israeli official.
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Although the understandings with U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration are likely to include Israeli willingness to impose significant restrictions on construction in West Bank settlements, the Prime Minister’s Bureau believes that this will not weaken the coalition.
“There’s no blank check from Trump for construction in the settlements and that was known from the first minute he entered the White House,” said the official, who is involved in contacts between Israel and the United States on the subject. “We are looking for the common denominator with the Americans that will allow construction on the one hand, and on the other promote with the Trump administration diplomatic moves in many areas.”
Netanyahu met on Monday evening for more than five hours with American envoy Jason Greenblatt. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, was present for most of the meeting and the most significant part of the conversation dealt with the attempt to formulate understandings on construction in the settlements.
Netanyahu and Greenblatt are expected to meet again this week before the envoy leaves the country.
Speaking at a Tuesday press conference at his office, Netanyahu described his conversations with Greenblatt as “good and thorough.” Netanyahu added: “I can’t say that we finished or summed things up; we are in a process, but a process of true and sincere dialogue in the positive meaning of the word. It is not yet open to the press.”
The official said Washington and Jerusalem were on the way to an agreement regarding settlement construction. “It won’t take long,” he said. “In a few weeks we’ll reach understandings as to the boundaries regarding construction in the settlements. What can be done and what can’t be done and especially how to act in coordination and not unilaterally. We want to reach a series of agreed-on principles so as not to return to the Obama period during which there was conflict over every balcony in the territories,” the official added.
At the end of the Netanyahu-Greenblatt meeting, a joint statement was released that included one of the principles regarding settlement construction that had already been agreed on. According to the statement, the two sides discussed construction in the settlements “in the hope of working out an approach that is consistent with the goal of advancing peace and security.”
Netanyahu used a more detailed version of this convoluted sentence in the past during talks with Zionist Union chairman MK Isaac Herzog on promoting a regional peace initiative and establishing a unity government. This principle means that if there is construction in the settlements, it will take place in a manner that does not contradict the two-state solution and will not preclude the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state in the future.
An Israeli official who has been involved in Israel-U.S. contacts on the settlements said the Trump administration had proposed to Netanyahu that he renew the understandings that had been in place between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. According to those understandings, settlement construction would not be frozen, but would be restricted to the built-up areas of each settlement, so that even if the number of residents increased, the area the settlements take up in the West Bank would not expand.
The official said Netanyahu had rejected that proposal for both political reasons and practical ones involving the difficulty in implementing such a policy on the ground. Trump then proposed that Netanyahu formulate a proposal of his own on principles governing construction in the settlements and present them as a basis for discussion.
One of Netanyahu’s ideas was for construction in the settlements to be restricted to the jurisdiction areas of the settlements, which is much bigger than their built-up areas. The official said the Americans objected to this formulation because it would allow significant expansion of the settlements’ built area beyond the current boundaries.
Another formula discussed in the Prime Minister’s Bureau was unlimited construction in the large settlement blocs such as Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel, together with a quiet, unofficial freeze on construction in isolated settlements. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is in favor of that idea and believes it serves long-term Israeli interests. However, Netanyahu is concerned that moving ahead on it will lead Habayit Hayehudi to bolt the coalition and cause the government to fall.
The Prime Minister’s Bureau said Netanyahu is not examining any freeze on construction in the settlements and proposed no such freeze to the U.S. administration.
Even if understandings are reached with the Trump administration on settlement construction, Netanyahu does not want to bring them to a vote in the security cabinet and turn them into an official government decision. In that way, Netanyahu intends to avoid a political crisis with Habayit Hayehudi over construction in the settlements.
However, an Israeli official said the Prime Minister’s Bureau believes any understanding achieved with the Trump administration would not lead to a political crisis, at least not in the coming months.
One of the most sensitive coalition issues that Netanyahu has been trying to resolve with the U.S. administration involves his pledge to establish a new settlement for the evacuees from the illegal outpost of Amona. Habayit Hayehudi has already threatened that if the new settlement is delayed, Habayit Hayehudi will not support legislation that Netanyahu is trying to advance.
An official in Jerusalem said he believed a solution would be found that would satisfy all sides involved. Netanyahu, who is trying to persuade the Americans not to oppose construction of the new settlement, raised the matter in his meeting with Greenblatt. “The prime minister is standing by his promise to establish the new settlement,” the official said.