Israel should be smarter about settlement announcements - analysis

If the government believes that it should build, then by all means it should build. But do it in a way that won’t embarrass Washington.  Especially when it comes to Biden.

(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Timing is everything.

Just as talk began about a possible visit by US President Joe Biden to Israel in June, Israel announced that the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria would convene a meeting for the first time in some eight months on Thursday to discuss advancing plans for 3,988 housing units in the settlements.

US State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter dutifully came out Friday against convening the committee and reiterated that Washington “strongly opposes the expansion of settlements.” She was immediately asked whether advancing the plans would impact Biden’s trip plans.

“I have nothing to comment about the president’s upcoming trip,” she said.

Despite Biden’s strong opposition to settlements – a policy that goes back to 1982, when the second-term senator from Delaware had a sharp exchange with then-prime minister Menachem Begin in Washington over the matter – it is hard to believe that a meeting of the planning council in mid-May will affect a planned presidential trip at the end of June.

 US President Joe Biden gestures as he boards Air Force One at Delaware Air National Guard Base, in New Castle, Delaware, US, April 25, 2022. (credit: TASOS KATOPODIS/ REUTERS) US President Joe Biden gestures as he boards Air Force One at Delaware Air National Guard Base, in New Castle, Delaware, US, April 25, 2022. (credit: TASOS KATOPODIS/ REUTERS)

The preliminary talk was that Biden would come to Israel after a meeting of the G7 in Germany, from June 26-28. By that time, Thursday’s meeting of the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria will surely have been long forgotten, overshadowed by numerous other US domestic, Mideast regional and world events.

But that the question was even raised whether a presidential trip to Israel would be postponed over this issue should remind Jerusalem of the need to be sensitive about the timing of all settlement-building announcements.If the government believes it should build, then by all means it should build. Israel is a sovereign state, and these decisions are its own to make. But do it in a way that won’t embarrass Washington.Especially when it comes to Biden.

Why especially with Biden? Because his last trip to the country, in March 2010, will always be remembered for one thing: not his saying that his mother was most proud of him when he stood up for Israel, not when he said there must never be daylight between Israel and the US, but because the trip was overshadowed by an Interior Ministry announcement of plans to approve 1,600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo, a northern Jerusalem neighborhood beyond the 1967 lines.

Biden came to Israel at that time to patch up ties after the first two rather rocky years of the Obama presidency and the Netanyahu premiership. He came wanting to give Israel a public smooch – to reassure it and its enemies of Washington’s undying commitment – but ended up giving it a public smack by condemning the settlement announcement.

Biden got over it all rather quickly, and the next day he delivered a strong pro-Israel speech at Tel Aviv University. The Obama White House was less forgiving, with then-secretary of state Hilary Clinton upbraiding Netanyahu on the phone for 45 minutes about humiliating the vice president.

The lesson Netanyahu learned was to keep track of the settlement planning process, and he set up a mechanism inside the Prime Minister’s Office to do just that and ensure that this type of thing did not repeat itself.Here’s hoping that such a mechanism still exists and that if Thursday’s meeting was instead scheduled for late June, someone inside the PMO would have picked up on the bad timing.

Once Thursday’s meeting is over with expected announcements of moving forward with some 4,000 new units in the settlements – an announcement that will trigger the predictable condemnations from the US, Europe and the Arab world – the government must ensure that none of the other myriad committees that meet on each building project beyond the Green Line and in Jerusalem will not be meeting or making any decisions or pronouncements that will potentially embarrass the Americans just prior, during or immediately after Biden’s trip.

This possibility is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Announcements of new settlement construction plans during high-level diplomatic visits happened repeatedly in the past, way before Biden’s visit, with then-secretary of state James Baker complaining in the early ’90s that every time he came to the region he was greeted by new settlement plans.

Now that the coalition is so fragile, there may be a temptation by parties on the Right to wink and nod to their base via a West Bank project going through the pipeline.

It will therefore be especially important that someone in the PMO is watching so that an untimely announcement or meeting does not do to US-Israel relations in 2022, in advance of Biden’s visit, what just such an announcement did to US-Israel relations in 2010, when Biden visited as vice president.

In general, Israel would do itself a favor by streamlining the entire settlement planning process, which now is long and cumbersome with numerous stops along the way. Plans are drawn up, deposited, approved, tenders issued, granted and building permits given.

Nearly every step is accompanied by an announcement, and with each announcement comes a new round of condemnations. It’s death by a thousand cuts.

Former ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said that when he was at the UN, Ban Ki-moon, who at the time was the organization’s secretary-general, asked him once why Israel speaks about the same project five different times and passes it through five different committees.

“If you did it once a year, I would condemn you once a year, we would remain friends and move on,” Danon quoted Ban as saying. “But you have one plan that goes through the local committee, and then a district committee, and then the higher committee, and then to the government for approval. Every process brings with it condemnation.”Danon said all he could answer to Ban was that he was right.

“The planning process needs to take into consideration the international community,” Danon said. “It can’t be that you talk about [Jerusalem neighborhood] Givat Hamatos for 10 years and Ramat Shlomo for 15, and on the same projects you get international pressure at every stage.”

Ramat Shlomo is a perfect example.

The Interior Ministry announcement that brought down American wrath during Biden’s vice-presidential visit was about one early stage in the planning process – not about its approval or the issuing of a permit to start building. When the approval and permits came, they, too, triggered more condemnations.

Rather than making one declaration at one time and drawing the fire all at once, Israel’s construction process opens the country up to numerous harsh condemnations for the same project.

The lesson that needs to be learned is twofold: Be sensitive about the timing of announcements, and change the process – keeping it transparent but with fewer stages. Pull the Band-Aid off swiftly and at one go. It is much less painful that way.