Netanyahu Pledges Unrestricted Construction in East Jerusalem, Settlement Blocs

Lifting of restrictions stemming from political pressure was one of the reasons the ministers agreed to postpone a scheduled vote on the annexation of a West Bank settlement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, third right, attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday,  Jan. 22, 2017.
RONEN ZVULUN/AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu informed the members of the inner security cabinet on Sunday that he has decided to lift all restrictions on Israeli construction in East Jerusalem resulting from international diplomatic pressures, two senior officials who have been briefed on what transpired at the meeting said.

Netanayhu added that at the same time when construction plans would be promoted in East Jerusalem, he intends to also advance construction in West Bank settlement blocs.

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Netanyahu's decision was one of the factors that convinced ministers from the hard-right Habayit Hayehudi party to agree to defer proposed legislation that would annex the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, just to the east of Jerusalem.

In recent years, substantial limitations have been placed on Jerusalem's local and district planning committees with regard to construction in East Jerusalem, the area of the city lying beyond Israel's pre-1967 border. The restrictions were tightened further following a visit by then-U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden to Israel in March 2010, in the course of which new construction was approved in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. The move caused a major crisis in Israel's relations with the United States. 

Construction in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot, with Ramat Shlomo in the background, January 22, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Since then, the planning committee's decision-making has been closely monitored by the Prime Minister's Office, and on numerous occasions, the office sought the postpone approval of construction that was on the committees' agendas. In some cases, entire construction plans were suspended for years. When construction was approved, it was done sparingly and for the most part in response to terrorist attacks or Palestinian diplomatic action at United Nations institutions. 

The new policy was already in evidence on Sunday with the approval of construction of 560 housing units in the Ramot and Ramat Shlomo neighborhoods beyond the pre-1967 lines. Consideration of the construction had been deferred two weeks ago over concern that it would be condemned by the administration of President Barack Obama.

The security cabinet met for three hours on Sunday to consider the bill to annex Ma'aleh Adumim and future Israeli policy on the Palestinian issue, to be presented to the new Trump administration. The meeting came against the backdrop of heavy pressure on the part of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the Hayabit Hayehudi party, who has been seeking to pass the bill in the face of efforts by Netanyahu to scuttle passage of the bill.

At the end of the meeting, the Prime Minister's Office announced that the ministers on the panel had unanimously decided to defer a vote on the Ma'aleh Adumim bill until after Netanyahu meets with Trump. Although no date has been set for a meeting between the two leaders, it is expected to take place during the first week in February.

Netanyahu told the cabinet that he support the annexation of Ma'aleh Adumim, and that it was clear that the settlement will be under Israeli sovereignty in any future peace deal with the Palestinians. However, Netanyahu added that it was important not to surprise the new U.S. administration days after Trump took office.

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Netanyahu noted during the meeting that he envisions all West Bank settlements remaining under Israeli sovereignty, a senior official said.

Finance Minister Kahlon said at the meeting that promoting the annexation now could be seen as an underhanded move by the U.S., ministers who attended the meeting told Haaretz. "Why do we need this now, I think it's best to postpone discussion on this matter," Kahlon said. After other cabinet ministers sided with Kahlon, Education Minister Naftali Bennett also said that he agrees to push back the vote.

Contrary to the announcement by Netanyahu's office however, ministers who attended the cabinet meeting said that rather than agreeing to defer a vote on a bill annexing Ma'aleh Adumin until after a Netanyahu-Trump meeting, it was simply resolved not to vote on the legislation on Sunday. The Prime Minister's Office stated that prior to Netanyahu's trip to Washington the inner security cabinet would convene again to consider the Ma'aleh Adumim legislation and the policy that the prime minister would present to the new U.S. president. 

Netanyahu and Trump were scheduled to speak by phone at 8:30 P.M. Israel time on Sunday, their first conversation since Trump was inaugurated on Friday. At Sunday morning's meeting of the full cabinet, the prime minister said he would speak to Trump about the threat posed by Iran, the Palestinian issue and the war in Syria. He added that halting the Iranian threat and what he views as the threat posed by the international community's nuclear agreement with Iran continue to be a supreme priority for Israel.

In a meeting Sunday with cabinet members from his Likud party, the prime minister said he is not prepared to accept a Palestinian state that is completely independent. "What I am prepared to give the Palestinians is not exactly a state with every authority but rather a 'state-minus' and the Palestinians therefore do not agree," he said with regard to his stance.  

Netanyahu made his comments after Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis said that unlike the prime minister, he opposes a two-state solution and that such opposition presents the policy of the Likud party to which both belong. Netanyahu said in response that Okunis does not understand the prime minister's position on the establishment of a Palestinian state. "If you were to hear about my position in detail, I'm not sure you would oppose it," Netanyahu replied. 

In a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, Netanyahu accepted a two-state solution for the first time, saying that he supports "the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside a Jewish State of Israel." 

In the run-up to Knesset elections in March 2015, Netanyahu shifted his rhetoric, saying that if he was again elected prime minister, no Palestinian state would be established. Several days after the election, however, he again expressed his commitment to a two-state solution. He also expressed support for a two-state solution following the presidential election in the United States this past November, saying that he wished to advance the subject with President Trump.