Biden quietly exerts pressure on Israel over West Bank settlements
The Biden administration privately pressured the Israeli government to show restraint ahead of a key decision on West Bank settlement building, Israeli and US officials told Axios.
Why is this important: Both sides want to prevent this from becoming a point of tension between President Biden, who sees the settlements as a threat to the two-state solution, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads a pro-settlers party and is under pressure. policies on the issue. .
- Most of the international community views the West Bank settlements as illegal, and Palestinians argue that Israel is increasingly claiming land that should be part of their future state.
How did it happen: Biden told Bennett at their August 27 White House meeting that he expected Israel to exercise restraint on the settlement issue, and Bennett replied that Israel would only build according to it. needs arising from “natural growth”.
- But on his return from Washington, Bennett told settler leaders that when Biden pressed him on the settlements, he told him “no,” according to a Times of Israel report last week.
- Shortly after this report, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Jerusalem, Michael Ratney, reiterated Biden’s call for restraint to senior officials in the prime minister’s office. He also expressed particular concerns about a possible construction in the sensitive E1 zone near Jerusalem, which could prevent territorial contiguity between the north and the south of the West Bank.
The backstory: Bennett had wanted to take a big step forward on the settlements before coming to Washington: approving 2,000 new homes in Israeli settlements and around 1,000 new homes in Palestinian villages.
- Instead, a strike by the workers’ union in one of the departments of the Ministry of Defense postponed the move.
Between the lines: It would have been much easier to approve the new units before Biden explicitly pressed Bennett on this matter. In the six weeks following the visit, the housing approval meeting was not postponed.
What they say : “There is currently a great sensitivity among Americans about the colonies. This is the reason why approval for new planning and construction in the settlements is on hold for the time being, ”a senior Israeli official told me.
- A senior US official told me that the Biden administration has been in weekly contact with the Israeli government regarding settlements since Bennett’s meeting with the president.
- A spokesperson for the US Embassy declined to comment on the private conversations, but reiterated a call for “all parties to refrain from unilateral measures that exacerbate tensions and undermine efforts to advance a solution negotiated between two states. This includes settlement activities. “
- The prime minister’s office also said it would not comment on private conversations with U.S. officials.
The question also requires a balancing act from Biden, who is committed to a two-state solution but will also want to avoid a public fight on the issue like the one between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu – especially as Bennett’s government remains unstable and Netanyahu waits behind the scenes as leader of the opposition.
What to watch: It is not known when the committee that approves the settlement building will be convened or if Bennett will decrease the number of housing units for approval.