Four days after the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, Israel announced on Tuesday plans to build an additional 2,500 units inside West Bank settlements.
“We are returning to normal life in Judea and Samaria,” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said, announcing the plans.
According to the statement, Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to approve plans for the units in order to answer local housing needs. Netanyahu said, “We are building, and will continue to build.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, when asked about the matter at the daily press briefing, said that Trump has asked his team to get together.
“We’ll have a conversation with the prime minister,” he said.
Most of the new units will be inside the major settlement blocs, with Liberman saying that only 106 are outside the blocs. Twenty of the units are to be built in Beit El.
Of the 2,500 units, just under half are existing projects that will now be advanced, and the others are in the early stages of authorization.
The largest number of units, 902, will be built in Ariel.
Ma’aleh Adumim is to get 112 units; Givat Ze’ev will get 652; Oranit, 154; Alfei Menashe, 78; Efrat, 21; Elkana, 18, Betar Illit, 87; and four in Gush Etzion.
In addition, 86 units are earmarked for settlements in the Binyamin regional council, and 385 for settlements in the Shomron regional council.
Liberman said that, in parallel to these moves, he will bring for the security cabinet’s approval plans to establish a Palestinian industrial zone near Tarkumiya, south of Hebron. According to the statement, this will be one of the largest industrial areas in the territories.
The plans for the new construction come just a month after the US, under the previous administration of president Barack Obama, enabled the passage of a UN Security Council Resolution 2334 slamming the settlements as lacking “legal validity,” and as being the primary obstacle to peace and a two-state solution. That resolution was followed by a speech by former secretary of state John Kerry slamming the settlement enterprise.
Trump criticized the UN resolution before the inauguration and top officials in his team sharply criticized Kerry for his speech.
Netanyahu spoke by phone with Trump on Sunday and issued a statement afterward saying that he expressed his desire to work together with Trump to promote “peace and security” in the region in a way in which “there will be no daylight between the United States and Israel.”
He has also said in various forums in recent days that it is very important not to do anything to surprise the new administration.
Liberman’s announcement occurred two days after permits were granted by the Jerusalem Municipality for building 560 units in Ramot, Pisgat Ze’ev and Ramat Shlomo, all Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the 1949 armistice line.
While Germany and France both swiftly condemned that move, the US was noticeably quiet, a sharp contrast with the Obama administration, which regularly slammed new building beyond the Green Line.
Jerusalem believes that there will be far less opposition by the current administration to building in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs than there was for the last eight years under Obama.
The EU, by contrast, was quick to condemn it, saying that the announcement, coupled with the recently announced approval of building permits in Jerusalem, “further seriously undermine the prospects for a viable two-state solution. It is regrettable that Israel is proceeding with this policy, despite the continuous serious international concern and objections, which have been constantly raised at all levels.”
According to the statement: “Continued settlement expansion, illegal under international law as reaffirmed by UN Security Council Resolution 2334, goes directly against long-standing EU policy and the recommendations of the Quartet Report.
A negotiated two-state solution is the only way to fulfill the legitimate aspirations of both parties and to achieve enduring peace.”
The Palestinians denounced the announcement, saying it flies in the face of international opinion. Wasel Abu Yousif, member of the PLO Executive Committee, told The Jerusalem Post that, “It is clear that the Israeli government is presuming that it can act in this manner with the arrival of the Trump administration.
“The international community said that settlements are illegal and that is consensus position as evidenced in the unanimous approval of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334,” he said. “There needs to be an international mechanism to prevent settlement building, which we consider a war crime.”
Hanan Ashrawi, a PLO Executive Committee member, issued a statement saying that, “Once again the Israeli government has proved that it is more committed to land theft and colonialism than to the two-state solution and the requirements for peace and stability. Such a deliberate escalation of Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise constitutes a war crime and the flagrant violation of international law and conventions, in particular UN Security Council Resolution 2334.”
On the other hand, Yesha, the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria, congratulated the government on the move.
“We hope that this is just the beginning of a wave of new building across our ancestral homeland after eight very difficult years,” said Efrat Council head Oded Revivi, who is also Yesha’s chief foreign envoy.
“Israeli towns in Judea and Samaria are the answer to peace, enabling Israelis and Palestinians to live and work together. We hope to continue building a peaceful future with the blessing of the new Trump administration,” he said.
But not all on the Right were pleased. MK Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) immediately accused Netanyahu of diverting attention from the initiative to annex Ma’aleh Adumim, a move which the prime minister has said is premature at this time.
“We’re not stupid,” Smotrich said.
“In the best case scenario, it’s an attempt to prevent the application of sovereignty on Judea and Samaria, and in the worst case it is laying the groundwork for a future Palestinian state,” said Smotrich who co-chairs the Knesset’s Land of Israel caucus.
MK Yoav Kisch (Likud), who is also a co-chairman of the caucus, accused Netanyahu of helping left-wing politicians advance their program of supporting the settlement blocs while freezing the isolated settlements.
In the US, the left-wing J Street organization reacted to the announcement by calling the initiative “highly dangerous.”
According to the group, the approval of 2,500 new settlement homes reflects the Netanyahu government’s sense that it now has carte blanche from US President Trump and his administration for unlimited settlement expansion.
“Though the announcement by the government claims that most of the units will be built in so-called ‘settlement blocs’ – this is an attempt to normalize actions that the world has made clear have no legal validity and crush hopes of reaching a negotiated resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” J Street wrote in a statement on Tuesday.
The organization also noted that some of the units are to be built in Beit El, an ideologically right-wing settlement to which President Trump has donated money in the past and for which David Friedman, his nominee to be US ambassador to Israel, has raised millions of dollars as head of the American Friends of Beit El organization.
“This announcement should put to rest any illusion that this Israeli government seeks a two-state solution with the Palestinians,” the organization said. “Israel’s government may be relieved to know that it will not feel the sting of a US rebuke today, but this announcement, combined with proposals for annexation of land beyond the Green Line and the possible relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, throw fuel on simmering fires and risk sparking further violence and terror in the near term.”
The group called on the Trump administration to “immediately condemn this decision and restate American opposition to Israeli settlements – as all Republican and Democratic administrations have without exception since 1967.”
Adam Rasgon, Michael Wilner, and Danielle Ziri contributed to this report.