Israel okays another 3,000 new settlement homes
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Israel okays another 3,000 new settlement homes

Netanyahu and Liberman approve widespread construction, including outside major blocs, saying Israel 'returning to normal life' in West Bank

Sunset over a construction site next to the Jewish East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo on November 21, 2016. (Sebi Berens/Flash90)
Sunset over a construction site next to the Jewish East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo on November 21, 2016. (Sebi Berens/Flash90)

With the evacuation of the Amona outpost looming, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday approved the construction of around 3,000 new homes in the West Bank, some of them outside settlement blocs Israel hopes to keep in a future peace deal with the Palestinians.

The decision came a week after Israel approved the construction of 566 housing units in East Jerusalem and 2,500 homes in the West Bank.

In a statement, the Defense Ministry said the new construction “comes as part of a return to normal life in Judea and Samaria, as well as conduct which provides real solutions to housing and living needs.”

The new homes will include 700 homes in Alfei Menashe, 650 in Beitar Illit, 650 in Beit Arye, 200 in Nofim, 150 in Nokdim (Liberman’s home settlement), 100 in Shilo, 100 in Karnei Shomron and 100 in Metsudot Yehuda.

The announcement appeared to be an attempt by the government to calm settler anger over the court-ordered removal of Amona.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman shake hands after signing a coalition agreement in the Knesset on Wednesday, May 25, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman shake hands after signing a coalition agreement in the Knesset on Wednesday, May 25, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last week Liberman announced the approved expansion of West Bank settlements, with 2,500 new homes to be built, mostly inside what Israel considers the principle blocs it expects to retain under an accord in exchange for land swaps.

The precise location, size and scope of those blocs, however, have never been agreed upon by Israelis and Palestinians.

The international community considers settlements illegal. But new US President Donald Trump has signaled that he will abandon the policies of his predecessors and be far friendlier toward settlements. He has appointed a prominent US supporter of the settlements to be his ambassador to Israel, and a delegation of settler leaders was invited to his inauguration.

This has emboldened Netanyahu, who repeatedly clashed with President Barack Obama over settlements, to announce a series of construction plans over the past week and a half. The Trump White House has remained silent, a dramatic departure from the vocal condemnations issued by Obama.

Last week’s announcement came just days after Trump and Netanyahu had their first phone call since the president assumed power.

It also came after a Jerusalem planning committee approved 566 housing units in East Jerusalem, a move that was delayed while former president Barack Obama voiced strong objections, but came shortly before the Sunday phone conversation.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer calls on a reporter during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
White House press secretary Sean Spicer calls on a reporter during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The administration has remained quiet since then. Asked at a press briefing last Tuesday for a response to the building plans, White House press secretary Sean Spicer neither approved nor condemned the decision, saying that the two countries’ leaders would discuss the matter when Netanyahu visits Washington next month.

Netanyahu, for his part, has signaled to his governing coalition that he intends to accelerate construction with the new US president far less hostile to the settlement enterprise than his predecessor. The latest building announcements were just “a taste,” he told Knesset members last week. “We are going to be doing many things differently from now on.”

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on Thursday accused the Trump administration of encouraging Israeli settlement construction, and hurting the chances of a two-state outcome, with its lack of response to new building projects beyond the Green Line.

“We’re waiting to hear an official response from the American administration, President Trump’s administration, on the Israeli settlement activities,” Erekat said in a video posted on Twitter by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Last month, Obama withheld the US veto from UNSC Resolution 2334, which was highly critical of the settlements, designating them as having “no legal validity” and constituting “a flagrant violation under international law.”

The motion also called for a complete end to all construction in areas Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War, including East Jerusalem.

Obama, who routinely criticized Israel when it approved new settlement projects, maintained that those responses were acts of friendship, as he saw expanding settlement in the West Bank as self-destructive to Israel’s long-term sustainability.

“I don’t see how this issue gets resolved in a way that maintains Israel as both Jewish and a democracy,” Obama said in his final press conference. “Because if you do not have two states, then in some form or fashion you are extending an occupation.”

Eric Cortellessa contributed to this report.

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