Housing Ministry looks to double settler population in Jordan Valley

Government officials have so far consistently denied US pressure to halt building plans in the region.

 Israeli forces stand guard during a protest against Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley on February 18, 2021. (photo credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90)
Israeli forces stand guard during a protest against Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley on February 18, 2021.
(photo credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90)

Construction and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin (New Hope) is set to promote a plan to double the settler population in the Jordan Valley, just as cabinet ministers and officials close to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett downplayed reports the United States had increased pressure on Israel to halt settlement activity

The plan would include a government decision to promote the Jordan Valley, an agrarian region over the pre-1967 lines with only some 1,500 families that borders Jordan and is considered to be of extreme strategic importance to Israel, according to a ministry source.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised to apply sovereignty to the Jordan Valley during his election campaigns and then delayed that move in favor of a sovereignty plan for half of Area C of the West Bank.Israel suspended its sovereignty plan as a prerequisite for the Abraham Accords, which opened the door to normalized ties with four Arab countries.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett holds a mask during a meeting with US President Joe Biden at the White House last month. (credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST) PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett holds a mask during a meeting with US President Joe Biden at the White House last month. (credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)

Elkin’s plan, which would call for the construction of 1,500 homes in existing Jordan Valley settlements, stops short of sovereignty.

It does, however, seek to firmly entrench Israel’s hold on the Jordan Valley and to remove it from the debate over the future of Area C of the West Bank.

“The Jordan Valley is a part of Judea and Samaria that is in consensus,” Elkin told Army Radio, explaining that it has the same wide public support as that of the settlements in the Gush Etzion bloc or the Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel settlements.

The story was first reported by the Hebrew daily Israel Hayom and confirmed by The Jerusalem Post.

The Jordan Valley is expected to increase both domestic and international tension over settlement activity, particularly given the opposition to such building by some of the coalition members. The Meretz and Ra’am parties oppose any Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria, and the Labor Party opposes building outside the blocs.

A ministry source said it is believed that there is majority support for the Jordan Valley plan in the cabinet. News of the plans comes on the heels of a Civil Administration hearing earlier this week on the viability of construction of close to 3,500 homes in an area of the West Bank that has not been built up, known as E1.

The US has been fairly blunt about its public opposition to Israeli settlement activity.

The Biden administration mentions support for a two-state solution and opposition to unilateral steps – often specifying that includes settlement activity – nearly every time its representatives speak about Israel.

American Chargé d’Affaires Michael Ratney regularly speaks with Bennett’s diplomatic adviser Shimrit Meir, and has brought up concerns about settlements, multiple sources said.

On Wednesday, however, cabinet ministers and officials close to Bennett denied that he was facing greater pressure from the Biden administration to freeze construction in Judea and Samaria.

Bennett has repeatedly stated that he has no intention of freezing Jewish building in Judea and Samaria and that he intends to continue to advance plans for construction.

Still, the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria has yet to convene to advance any significant settler building project. It last met just before US President Joe Biden took office on January 20, when Netanyahu was prime minister. The council had initially been scheduled to convene in August to advance a plan for 2,223 housing units, but that meeting was canceled due to a strike and has not been rescheduled.

Following a report on Army Radio on Wednesday that Bennett told the security cabinet that he was “surprised” by the level of pressure over settlements from the US, numerous cabinet ministers said on condition of anonymity that they had not felt or heard about increased pressure.

Elkin told Army Radio there is “no connection between the report and what happened in reality.”

“We know how to behave,” Elkin added. “It’s not anything we haven’t seen in previous governments.”

Sources close to Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who was in Washington last week, made similar remarks while saying the Biden administration has made its position clear.

“They don’t want to build in E1 or Givat Hamatos, but this isn’t what pressure looks like,” a senior diplomatic source said.

The prime minister is aware that when building plans in the West Bank are made public, they will likely cause friction with the Biden administration, a source close to Bennett said. However, he still intends to allow for “a conservative but consistent pace of construction.”

When it comes to construction, the source added, Bennett plans to focus more on the Golan Heights, which the US recognizes as sovereign Israeli territory. Earlier this month, Bennett announced a plan to quadruple the population in the Golan. Elkin told Army Radio he believes the government should similarly double down on the Jordan Valley plan.

Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan went to Washington this week to drum up opposition in Congress to any Biden administration attempt to impose a settlement freeze on Israel.

“We will not allow for a construction freeze in Judea and Samaria,” Dagan told the media. “Not in this government and not in any other government,” he emphasized.

Dagan left for Washington at the start of the week amid consistent reports of Biden administration pressure on Bennett to freeze settlement activity.

Dagan is a member of the largest opposition party, the Likud, led by Netanyahu. He warned Bennett not to blame US pressure for a freeze.

“The responsibility for construction in Judea and Samaria is solely in the hands of the Israeli government” led by Bennett, Dagan said.

There is support among US politicians for Jewish building in Judea and Samaria, Dagan said, adding that the politicians he had met with were very supportive and receptive.

“The purpose of the meetings is to create a coalition of partners for the State of Israel and the settlement in Judea and Samaria who will fight together to build and strengthen” those communities, he said.

Dagan’s office said that the settler leader has met with some 20 members of the House and Senate. These include Republican Reps. Robert Good of Virginia, Chris Smith of New Jersey, Andy Barr of Kentucky, Charles Fleischmann of Tennessee, Lee Zeldin of New York and Beth Van-Dwayne of Texas.