Israel moves forward with thousands of settler homes despite US opposition
- Israeli move defies sharp US criticism
- Palestinians condemn new housing projects
- Settlements a thorny issue for the new Israeli government
JERUSALEM, October 27 (Reuters) – Israel moved forward on Wednesday with plans to build some 3,000 houses for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, defying the Biden administration’s toughest criticism to date of such plans.
A senior Palestinian official said the decision showed that the new Israeli government, led by far-right politician Naftali Bennett, was “no less extreme” than the administration of the veteran leader he replaced, Benjamin Netanyahu .
An Israeli defense official said that a planning forum of the Israel Liaison Office with the Palestinians had given preliminary approval for construction plans for 1,344 housing units and final green light for construction projects for 1. 800 houses.
It will be up to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a centrist in the politically diverse Israeli government, to give the green light to the issuance of building permits, with further friction with Washington looming.
“This government is trying to balance its good relations with the Biden administration against various political constraints,” a senior Israeli official told Reuters.
The United States said Tuesday it was “deeply concerned” about Israel’s plans to advance thousands of settlement units. He called such steps detrimental to the prospects of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said he strongly opposed settlement expansion.
Washington waived such criticism when President Joe Biden’s Republican predecessor Donald Trump was in power.
A senior US State Department official said Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the matter with Gantz on Tuesday. Their phone call was first reported by the Axios news site, which quoted Israeli officials as saying that the US foreign minister had expressed US opposition to the settlement plan.
The latest drafts, along with tenders released Sunday for more than 1,300 settler homes, represented the first major test case on settlement policy with the Biden administration taking office in January.
“The behavior of the Israeli government under Bennett is no less extreme than it had been under Netanyahu,” Bassam Al-Salhe, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told Reuters.
“The US administration has words, not deeds, to change the policy that was put in place by Trump,” Salhe said.
There was no immediate comment from Washington on Wednesday.
Walking a political and diplomatic tightrope, Bennett faced calls from settler leaders to step up construction. Such plans are likely to be welcomed by his ultra-nationalist voters, who share his opposition to a Palestinian state.
But alongside the prospect of tensions over relations with Washington, Bennett could also alienate left-wing and Arab parties into a governing coalition with a very slim parliamentary majority, if they see settlement plans as too ambitious.
Most countries consider the settlements Israel built on the territory it captured in a Middle East war in 1967 as illegal.
Israel disputes this and has settled some 440,000 Israelis in the West Bank, citing Biblical, historical and political ties to the region, home to 3 million Palestinians.
The Palestinians seek to create a state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Humeyra Pamuk, Simon Lewis and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Howard Goller
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