The government has unofficially and quietly frozen settlement construction outside the major blocs for the past few months in an apparent acquiescence to American pressure.
According to a report in Yedioth Ahronoth on Thursday, Jordan Valley regional council chief David Elchaiiani asked Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit last week why construction was being held up in the settlements that he administers, even in projects that had received approval from the defense minister.
He was told that the order had come from on high not to advance construction plans in settlements outside the major blocs.
“We received instruction from policy makers not to advance plans outside what’s found in the settlement blocs,” Mandelblit was quoted as telling Elchaiiani last Monday. “Let’s wait patiently until we return from the United States and then we’ll talk,” he was said to add, in a reference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s imminent visit to Washington and meeting with President Barack Obama on Monday.
Major West Bank settlement blocs are typically thought to include the Jewish communities in the Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem, Ma’aleh Adumim, and Ariel, but it wasn’t clear from the report what areas are included in the unofficial construction freeze.
Israel has demanded that the sparsely populated Jordan Valley, which runs along the border with the Hashemite Kingdom, remain under its control as part of a deal with the Palestinians, citing its strategic importance.
In recent months, right-wing MKs have drafted bills seeking to annex the Jordan Valley and place it under Israeli jurisdiction, and the UN has noted a rise in Israeli demolitions of Palestinian construction in the area.
Last week Army Radio reported that the Obama administration asked Israel to impose an unofficial settlement freeze outside major settlements blocs if an American-mediated framework agreement is agreed upon by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. According to Thursday’s Yedioth Ahronoth report, that move has already been in effect for months.
Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel dismissed the Yedioth Ahronoth report, denying any moratorium on settlement development.
“We will under no circumstances agree to freezing [the construction of] a single home in the land of Israel,” he said in a statement. “It’s unjust, inappropriate and unethical. The prime minister clearly promised there wouldn’t be any freezes, official or unofficial, and I expect that he will stand by that commitment.”
Earlier this week a group of right-wing MKs wrote a public letter to Netanyahu published in the Israeli press warning him against agreeing to a settlement freeze, stressing that they would not accept any framework agreement that would prevent Israelis from expanding the Jewish presence in the West Bank.