Ahead of Trump visit, Israel delays meeting of settlement planning body – report
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Ahead of Trump visit, Israel delays meeting of settlement planning body – report

Netanyahu's postponement said meant to keep construction from becoming obstacle in talks, avoid repeat of 2010 Joe Biden embarrassment

This file photo taken on December 28, 2016 shows a partial view of the West Bank settlement of Givat Zeev northwest of Jerusalem. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)
This file photo taken on December 28, 2016 shows a partial view of the West Bank settlement of Givat Zeev northwest of Jerusalem. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly postponed a meeting of the planning committee tasked with approving new settlement construction, scheduled for this week, in a bid to avoid a potential spat with US President Donald Trump on the eve of his scheduled visit to Israel.

An unnamed Israeli official told the Haaretz daily that the meeting was put off in order to keep settlement construction from becoming an issue hanging over Trump’s visit to Israel, as well as to ensure it does not turn into a focus of potential peace talks and give ammunition to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in negotiations.

The official also said that Israel wanted to avoid a repeat of Joe Biden’s 2010 visit, when the approval of over 1,000 homes in the Jewish East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo led to a diplomatic flareup between Jerusalem and Washington after it was seen by the Americans as a slap in the face to the vice president.

The meeting of the planning committee to be held this week was to be its first since Israel agreed to self-imposed restrictions in March on new settlement construction, in what was seen as a gesture to the Trump administration after months-long negotiations between the two sides failed to yield any formal understanding on the matter.

The White House at the time said it “welcomed” the curb, also cautioning Israel against engaging in large-scale construction projects.

Construction in the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, near the West Bank city of Hebron, on April 2, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Construction in the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, near the West Bank city of Hebron, on April 2, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Under Israel’s new settlement guidelines, the planning committee is set to meet once every three months instead of once every month. The planning committee will now convene in early June, according to Haaretz.

As part of the restrictions, Jerusalem also agreed not to construct any new settlements or illegal outposts, while also limiting new building to inside existing settlement boundaries. However, if legal, security or topographical limitations do not allow adherence to those guidelines, new homes will be built outside the current settlement boundaries but as close as possible to them.

Following the Haaretz report on Thursday, the settlement umbrella group the Yesha Council criticized the reported decision to delay the planned committee meeting, saying that the approval of new construction is “not subject to negotiations” and calling on the government to “fulfill its commitments” under the new guidelines.

The anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now also criticized the reported delay, albeit for different reasons, saying that it was only meant to “create the impression of restraint.”

Netanyahu’s announcement in March of the new limitations, which he reportedly said were made in order to “be considerate of the [US] president’s requests,” came after the security cabinet voted unanimously to approve a new settlement for the evacuees of the illegal Amona outpost north of Ramallah. The planned settlement would be the first new settlement in the West Bank since the 1993 Oslo Accords.

While Trump has previously said that settlements are not “an impediment to peace,” during a meeting with Netanyahu at the White House in February, he said, “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.”

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)
US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)

Despite Trump’s stated opposition to new settlement construction, Israel has approved some 5,500 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the US president was inaugurated in January; their announcement has been met with relatively little pushback from the White House.

Trump’s upcoming visit to Israel comes amid efforts by the US president to renew peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The US president, who has referred to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as “the ultimate deal,” said last week, when hosting Abbas, that he would be willing to play whatever role was needed to strike an accord.

On Wednesday, an unnamed Palestinian Authority official confirmed to Channel 2 an earlier report in the Arabic Al-Hayat daily that Trump is expected to announce a trilateral summit with Netanyahu and Abbas during his visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority on May 22-23.

Both Netanyahu and Abbas have voiced support for Trump’s interest in reviving the peace process, although the two have also sought to cast blame on each other for the past lack of progress.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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