Day Before Trump's Visit: Israel Approves Economic Measures to Benefit Palestinians

Netanyahu, far-right ministers clash during security cabinet meeting. PM and seven ministers vote in favor, Bennett and Shakked against

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet, May 21, 2017
Emil Salman

The day before U.S. President Donald Trump arrived for his first visit to Israel, the security cabinet approved a package of economic measures to the Palestinians in the West Bank, including permits for thousands of homes in Area C, where Israel has total civil and security control.

A senior Israeli official noted that the move was intended as a gesture ahead of Trump's visit to Israel.

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A timetable of Trump's visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority

During the security cabinet meeting there was a confrontation between Habayit Hayehudi ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who both objected to some of the measures, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who supported them. 

In an unusual move, the inner cabinet meeting took place in a security facility in Jerusalem and lasted some five hours. Along with approving the package for the Palestinians, the ministers discussed Trump’s visit and his efforts to restart the peace process. 

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The package of gestures submitted for the ministers’ approval included the following:

* Easing passage between the West Bank and Israel at the crossing points used by Palestinian laborers. The cabinet approved the expansion of the Sha'ar Ephraim crossing, near Tul karm.

* Keeping the Allenby Crossing open 24/7. This crossing is used primarily by Palestinians to cross between the West Bank and Jordan.

* Permitting the expansion of the industrial zone at Tarqumiya in the south Hebron Hills. The Tarqumiya zone will be expanded into Area C, which is under Israeli control.

* Providing permits for thousands of Palestinian homes in those parts of Area C that are adjacent to Palestinian cities.

* The cabinet decided to examine connecting Jenin to the Israeli railway.

Settlements and Palestinian homes

A senior Israeli official noted that the move was intended as a gesture ahead of Trump's visit to Israel. They said it does not harm Israeli interests and pertains entirely to economic and civilian matters. "No steps being taken have to do with defense or with easing security," the official said. "These steps do not change the status of the West Bank territories," he said.

The senior official noted that most of the housing permits authorized were for existing homes built illegally by Palestinians and that would not be demolished. According to the official, even in areas in which permits were issued, Israeli planning authorizes would retain their powers and Israel will also decide if the lands will be zoned for agriculture, industry or residential housing.

The senior official noted that the Civil Administration's top planning committee would convene on June 7 to authorize a new construction plan in settlements. The cabinet also authorized the forming of a special committee that will work for the next three years to advance the issue of regulating illegal housing in settlements as well as illegal outposts in the West Bank.

Territorial concessions

A senior Israeli official who was updated on the details of the meeting noted that the ministers held two separate votes. The first vote was on the changes at the crossings, which the ministers supported unanimously. The second vote was on the expansion of the industrial zones and the construction in Area C, to which Bennett and Shaked objected vehemently.

According to the official, Bennett and Shaked said they were opposed to any territorial concessions to the Palestinians in the guise of economic concessions. “In the end there’s construction for the Palestinians in Area C without them giving anything in return,” Bennett was quoted as saying. In the vote that took place shortly afterward, Netanyahu and seven other ministers voted in favor of the measures while Bennett and Shaked voted against.

Another senior official familiar with what transpired at the meeting said that during the session there was a confrontation between Bennett and Lieberman. “You leak [information] from the security cabinet,” Lieberman told Bennett, who replied, “No bullet ever whistled past your ear. I suggest to the prime minister that all of us finally take a polygraph test because the leaks are a terrible disease.”

Netanyahu wanted to approve the package of gestures to the Palestinians before Trump arrived Monday. Senior White House officials have hinted in recent days that Trump is expecting both Israel and the Palestinians to take steps that will create a suitable atmosphere for resuming the peace process. Netanyahu wanted to show Trump that he was taking confidence-building measures to improve the Palestinians’ economic situation.

>> Donald Trump's visit to Israel: Everything you need to know >>

The American president will arrive in Israel on Monday afternoon and receive a formal ceremony at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Trump will be welcomed by President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. From the airport, Trump will takeoff on Marine One to Jerusalem where he will meet Rivlin at the President's Residence. Next, Trump will visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City and then head to the Western Wall

Monday evening, Trump will meet with Netanyahu at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where he is staying for the entirety of his visit. Afterwards, the two will head to Netanyahu's official residence and will make statements to the press. They will then be rejoined by their wives for a private dinner.

On Tuesday, Trump will arrive in Bethlehem to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Afterwards he will swing back to Jerusalem to visit Yad Vashem. In the afternoon, Trump will head to the Israel Museum to give what is expected to be a diplomatic speech. He will then head off to the next leg of his first foray abroad as president, flying to Rome to visit the Holy See.