Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to approve the country’s first outpost in the West Bank for two decades on Thursday, an Israeli official confirmed to Newsweek, threatening to deal an early blow to relations with President Donald Trump's administration.
The Israeli leader hinted at the approval of the new bloc, which the majority of the international community would consider to be illegal under international law, on Thursday. He told reporters: “I made a promise that we would establish a new settlement. We will keep it today. There are a few hours until then and you will get all the details.”
“Check your local listings,” an Israeli official in Netanyahu’s office, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Newsweek when asked if Netanyahu would approve the new settlement on Thursday, indicating that the move would indeed happen.
The settlement, the first since 1999, will be created to appease 40 settler families after their February eviction from the Amona outpost in the West Bank, which the Israeli High Court ruled had been built illegally on private Palestinian land. Many settlers have built outposts on West Bank land they say was not under private ownership or for which no owner had come forward with land deeds.
It remains unclear if the Israeli government has coordinated the new settlement and its announcement with Trump and his advisers. In a Washington visit to meet the newly-elected president in February, Trump told Netanyahu he would “like to see you hold back on settlements a little bit” at a joint press conference.
Trump has pledged to solve the decades-long conflict, changing long-held U.S. policy in support of a two-state solution when he said he would support either a two-state or a one-state solution, depending on what both sides wanted.
The Palestinians have earmarked the West Bank and East Jerusalem as territories for any future Palestinian state. Israel has occupied the territories since it captured them in the 1967 Six-Day War and considers them the biblical homeland of the Jews.
The prospect of a new settlement, ahead of its announcement, has angered Palestinians, who said it was an Israeli attempt to disrupt Trump’s early attempts at reviving the peace process.
“I think that whoever is taking this action is meaning to sabotage the efforts of President Trump in regards to his peacemaking,” says Majdi Khaldi, presidential adviser to Mahmoud Abbas, speaking to Newsweek by phone.
“Whatever is built there, or about to be planned to be built there, is illegal,” he continues. “Whoever continues with the settlement activities, the only message is the reality of one state with apartheid.”
Before his inauguration, Trump was viewed in Israel as receptive to right-wing and far-right Israeli causes. His administration remained largely uncritical of Netanyahu’s emboldened right-wing coalition as it announced more than 6,000 new settlement units and passed a law that legalized outposts built on private Palestinian land, while far-right ministers lauded the “end of a Palestinian state.”
He criticized his predecessor for abstaining on a December U.N. resolution that demanded an end to Israeli settlement building. The Obama administration’s decision allowed the bill to pass. Trump’s team, particularly his ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, have been critical of the world body for its perceived bias against Israel.
After entering the White House, Trump changed tack, stating settlement building was “not helpful” to finding peace and that it was “too early” to talk of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He dispatched his Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt twice to the region to meet with both Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Greenblatt was tasked with negotiating a compromise with Israel over its settlement construction
Trump has appeared anxious to revive a peace process which has been moribund for almost three years, after John Kerry’s attempts to sponsor fresh talks collapsed in 2014. If the new settlement’s announcement was not coordinated with Trump’s team, it would be a “massive slap in the face” for his administration, experts say.
“Off the bat, I would say it probably is not coordinated with the U.S. because I think Trump now seems to be warming to this new peace process, and Greenblatt’s visit would indicate that there is something there they are trying to put in the pipeline,” says Hugh Lovatt, Middle East and North Africa policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“If this is not coordinated, it puts the U.S. administration in a very difficult position because they have given Israel a certain degree of room,” he continues. “I think they would likely see this as insulting.”
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