Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to help link the Betar Illit settlement with nearby Jerusalem by building a new road that would cut commuting time between the two cities by 15 minutes.
“With the new road it will take about 15 to 20 minutes to get here,” said Netanyahu as he stood in the second largest West Bank settlement.
“We’re renewing Jerusalem. We’re renewing Betar. And we are making a connection between them,” said Netanyahu as he spoke of how the Jewish people had returned to the two biblical era cities.
He came to Betar Illit to open a new neighborhood in the haredi city of over 50,000 people, which was first created in the 1990s.
Thursday morning’s event marked Netanyahu’s first visit to the city since taking office in 2009. It was also the first time he’s attended a cornerstone laying ceremony for a large neighborhood in Judea and Samaria.
“There is no government that does more for the settlement in the Land of Israel, than this government under my leadership,” said Netanyahu.
He addressed the crowd on a makeshift stage inside a large white tent set up on an undeveloped hilltop that will one day have more than 1,000 homes. Located just over the Green Line, it will be the city’s third hilltop.
“We’re working energetically to settle all parts of the country, Netanyahu added. He told the ceremony’s several hundred participants that the city was close to his heart.
It is from these hilltops, that in the first century CE, the Jewish military leader Shimon Bar-Kochba fought the Romans after the destruction of the Second Temple.
Betar Illit is part of the Gush Etzion region, which Israel believes will be part of its sovereign borders in any final status agreement with the Palestinians.
But Palestinians are opposed to any settlement building including in Gush Etzion.
Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh condemned Israel’s plans to build a new Betar Illit neighborhood, according to WAFA, the Palestinian news and information agency
“Settlements are basically illegal and the Israeli government has to immediately stop its destructive approach to the two-state solution,” Abu Rudeineh said.
He called on the international community to stop Israeli settlement activity, which undermined US led peace efforts and increased tension in the area.
But in Betar Illit, Netanyahu said that his government had “an obligation to continue to develop the city.”
The prime minister joked that the city was growing so rapidly that soon Jerusalem would become a suburb of Betar.
“This is an exaggeration, but it is important because it shows the connection between it and Zion. From here you see Jerusalem here, just as [the ancient] Betar fighters saw Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said.
“Our generation has succeeded in achieving what past generations only dreamed about. We have returned to our home land and have turned it once again into a land of milk and honey."
He also spoke of Betar Illit’s significance as a haredi city. “It is important to me that the ultra-Orthodox public, to whom I deeply respect, will not be deprived. We are all brothers, and we are all equal,” Netanyahu said.
Betar Illit Mayor Meir Rubinstein said that when he first spoke of opening up a third hilltop for his city, people thought he was crazy. “So I stopped talking, but continued working,” Rubinstein said.
Already he said, "there are 218 homes that have been marketed and another 1,000 in the pipe line.”
He took the opportunity to ask Netanyahu to authorize even more building for his rapidly growing city.
At the end of the ceremony Netanyahu and city officials symbolically scooped cement from a plastic tub set up in one corner of the tent.
Netanyahu’s visit was one of three gestures he made on Thursday and Wednesday to the settlement movement and to his right-wing base.
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu’s chief of staff met with residents of the Netiv Ha’avot outpost to help them with finding a housing solution in advance of the High Court of Justice decree that states 15 homes must be destroyed in March 2018. The ruling was made after a land survey found that 15 of the homes were not on state land.
On Wednesday Netanyahu held a meeting to advance work on the new Amihai settlement for 40 families who had lived in the destroyed Amona outpost.
“Yesterday we convened all the parties - the Ministries of Defense, Housing and Finance - in order to bring about the immediate renewal of the construction work for the Amona evacuees. They deserve a home and soon,” Netanyahu said.
But his actions and statements did little to assuage right-wing politicians in his coalition, none of whom joined for the Betar Illit ceremony.
A dozen parliamentarians, including coalition chairman MK David Bitan, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, Social Welfare Minister Minister Haim Katz (Likud) and Communications Minister Ayoub Kara (Likud) held a protest event on the ruins of the former Sa-Nur settlement in the Samaria Region of the West Bank.
The event, organized by Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, called on the government to rescind the 2005 Disengagement order in northern Samaria under which four settlements, including Sa-Nur were destroyed.