The United States has warned Israel it could link new settlement building with future decisions to veto anti-Israeli resolutions at the UN Security Council, according to settler sources.
They spoke with The Jerusalem Post after a three-hour meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, senior staff from the premier’s office and 18 settler leaders on Tuesday night. It was the first such meeting in over two years.
During the conversation, Netanyahu rejected their demand that he authorize more settlement building as a direct response to the wave of Palestinian terror attacks that has gripped the country in the last week.
Netanyahu blamed the decision on international pressure, including a specific US warning that new settlement building could weaken US support for Israel at the UN Security Council.
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Israel is particularly worried about a seemingly dormant French resolution that would set a time limit for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines. The UN Security Council rejected a similar resolution in December 2014, but fears it could be resurrected.
US President Barack Obama in particular has been quite vocal about his opposition to settlement building. Netanyahu recalled for the settler leaders a quote from an initial meeting between the two leaders six years ago, in which Obama told him, “not even one brick.”
In Washington, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Tuesday rejected reports of a US ultimatum to Israel with regard to settlement building, particularly as it applies to US vetoes at the UN Security Council. The US is one of five countries out of the 15 member body with veto power. In the past it has used that power to squash anti-Israel resolutions.
“There’s not even a resolution out there right now,” Toner said.
That being said, he explained, “Our position on settlements is well known, hasn’t changed. We convey it regularly to the Israeli Government.” Still, the US has not issued any ultimatums on the matter, he added.
But Avi Ro’eh, who heads the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea and Samaria, was quite vocal on the issue of US and European pressure when he exited the Prime Minister’s Office close to midnight Tuesday.
Netanyahu and his staff discussed the difficulties the government faces, particularly from the international community, Europe and the US with regard to the ability to authorize [settlement] building and planning,” Ro’eh said.
The word settlement freeze was not mentioned, Ro’eh said. Instead, “they spoke of an inability to authorize and advance building in the current situation and under the current pressures,” said Ro’eh.
“When they spoke of external threats [against building], they spoke of the Europeans, mostly the Europeans, but also of the US,” Ro’eh said.
But as he stood in the dark discussing the situation with reporters, Ro’eh said, he believed that it was a mistake to cave to the international community on this score.
“Strategically, [heeding such pressure] is an egregious mistake that will harm the settlement enterprise, Jerusalem and the nation as a whole,” Ro’eh said.
A leader has to lead in these moments, particularly in the face of terror attacks, Ro’eh said.
“We have to make decisions that show we are sovereign here,” Ro’eh said.
The Netanyahu meeting followed a number of tumultuous days in which settlers have camped out in front of the premier’s Jerusalem home demanding increased security against terror attacks and the approval of Jewish building plans over the pre-1967 lines, both in the West Bank and in Jerusalem.
On Monday night thousands of protesters joined the settlers for a rally by the premier’s home. Likud Ministers Yariv Levin and Haim Katz took the stage at the rally to call for more settlement building.
Netanyahu’s policy in the past has been to respond to terror attacks with an announcement of new settlement building.
Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan told The Jerusalem Post
that he had expected to receive news of such construction approvals in the immediate aftermath of Thursday night’s Palestinian terror attack in his region of the West Bank, that killed Eitam and Na’ama Henkin as they drove home with their four children.
But to his surprise, the attack was greeted by silence from the Prime Minister’s Office, Dagan said. Immediately following the couple’s funeral on Friday, Dagan took a chair and sat on the sidewalk in front of the Prime Minister’s Office. On Saturday night, two more Israelis were killed in a terror attack in Jerusalem’s Old City and stoning attacks continued against Israeli cars on West Bank roads.
By Tuesday, three tents had been erected on the sidewalk and many settler leaders, including Gush Etzion Council head Davidi Perl joined him.
In the morning, while they sat there, Netanyahu flew by helicopter to Samaria, where he visited the site of the Henkin murder and held a large security meeting at the IDF’s headquarters there, with Ya’alon and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot.
After the meeting, Netanyahu told reporters that the IDF would place many more security cameras on the roads and aerial ones above to better protect the roads.
“A significant portion of the attacks take place along main roads and we have agreed here on a very serious plan in which we will deploy ground and aerial cameras on all roads in Judea and Samaria, with command and control centers, communication centers and fast response times,” he said.
“This change can significantly enhance our ability to thwart such attacks,” said Netanyahu.
“Israel is acting firmly and responsibly against terrorists,” he said.
But he urged settlers leaders and politicians, including in his own party, to refrain from their active criticism of his policies.
“We are in an ongoing struggle. Such a struggle does not require harsh criticism, it requires a lot of strength, a resolute attitude, much composure and thoroughness,” he said.
With regard to the issue of settlement building, Netanyahu said, only that his record on this issue was well known and that he would discuss it with settler leaders.
But when he met with settler leaders in his office in Jerusalem late that night Netanyahu rejected their request.
The settler campaign for new building comes as Netanyahu is scheduled to talk face-to-face with Obama at the White House in November, the first such meeting after a year marred by conflict over the Iran deal.
The contentious relationship between the two leaders has reached its lowest point since the two leaders entered office in 2009 and the meeting has been touted as an attempt to heal the breach between them.
It will be held amid failed attempts to jump-start the peace process, which broke down in April 2014. The Palestinians have insisted that they will not hold direct talks with Israel until Israel stops all Jewish building over the pre-1967 lines both in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Lately, the Palestinians have also insisted that they can not negotiate with Israel as long as it is an “occupying power” in the West Bank.
Netanyahu has publicly refused to heed their request to stop building, but few new projects or zoning plans have been approved in the last year.
“What has been approved is small and insignificant,” said Ro’eh.
Ro’eh said that the settlers plan to continue their protest activity outside Netanyahu’s home for another week, at which time they will hold a rally there.
The council, he said, will also meet on Wednesday to discuss what other further options it would take.
On Tuesday night Dagan said settlement building is not an egregious term.
Many of the settler leaders such as Ro’eh, Dagan and Perl, are all members of the Likud party. They were careful to say they were not against Netanyahu, but rather wanted to help him take the necessary decision.
“We understand the pressures [on Netanyahu] but we still expect action,” Dagan said.