Amid signs of expansion, Israel assures US it’s not planning to double settler numbers

PM’s aides rush to do damage control after Smotrich reported to be aiming for 1 million settlers and IDF revokes order barring Israelis from return to evacuated Homesh settlement

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Israelis gather at the Evyatar outpost in the West Bank on April 10, 2023. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
Israelis gather at the Evyatar outpost in the West Bank on April 10, 2023. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle sought to assure the Biden administration on Tuesday that Israel was not pursuing a major expansion in West Bank settlements, amid signals to the contrary from the IDF and one of the government’s most senior members.

The messages from Netanyahu’s senior aides indicate a recognition of resurfacing anger in Washington over the hardline government’s policies in the West Bank, as the premier still seeks an invitation to the White House, as well as US assistance in securing a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia.

While Netanyahu has insisted that the Palestinian issue need not influence Arab countries’ decisions to normalize ties with Israel, analysts believe fundamental shifts in the West Bank are sure to complicate that effort.

Last week, Haaretz reported that Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich directed several government offices to prepare for the doubling of Israel’s settler population, which currently stands at roughly half a million, adding that it is a central issue for the new coalition.

Days later, IDF Central Command chief Yehuda Fox signed a military order revoking the ban on Israelis entering Homesh, one of four settlements Israel evacuated in 2005 as part of its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Both Smotrich’s comments and Fox’s directive sparked the ire of the Biden administration, which is not planning to unveil a peace plan in the foreseeable future but is seeking to keep alive prospects for a viable Palestinian state in most of the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during a press conference, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on April 30, 2023. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

An Israeli official told The Times of Israel that US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides has raised his objection to both developments in conversations with Israeli officials.

Israeli officials have responded by telling their US counterparts that Smotrich’s goal of one million settlers is not official government policy, the official said.

Jerusalem has also insisted that there are no plans to establish a new settlement in Homesh, the official added, confirming a report on the Walla news site.

But the argument did not entirely convince the Biden administration, which has pointed out that the outpost sits on private Palestinian land, the Israeli official said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aides have sought to explain that the reason for the military order is to commence the process of moving the outpost off of Palestinian land to a different location nearby.

Such a rationale is unlikely to sway the Biden administration, which fundamentally opposes Israeli expansion in the West Bank, regardless of whether the land in question is considered public or private.

Walla said Netanyahu aides have told the Biden administration that the military order was necessary due to political pressure the premier is facing from his far-right coalition partners — another point unlikely to move the US.

Even before the IDF ban on the Israeli repopulation of Homesh was revoked, the hilltop enjoyed a near-daily presence of Israelis, who the IDF has allowed to enter the area every morning to study at a makeshift yeshiva.

The High Court of Justice has recognized that Homesh sits on private Palestinian land, but the army has yet to allow Palestinian farmers to regularly return to their lands there.

The site took on further political significance in late 2021 after a deadly terror shooting took the life of one of the Homesh yeshiva students, leading to renewed pressure on the government to formally recognize the yeshiva there.

The coalition supports legalizing Homesh, and it successfully passed legislation in March allowing the resettlement of the four northern West Bank settlements evacuated in 2005.

The next step in that process was the military order signed by Fox last week.

Settlers at the Homesh yeshiva gather at a tent at the former settlement of Homesh, west of the West Bank city of Nablus, on December 30, 2021. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The Knesset legislation led to the summoning of Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog — a move not taken in over a decade.

After the military order was signed last Thursday, the Biden administration sufficed with a statement — albeit one of the harsher ones it has issued against Israel — that said the move was “inconsistent with both former Prime Minister Sharon’s written commitment to the Bush Administration in 2004 and the current Israeli government’s commitments to the Biden Administration.”

Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon sent then-US president George W. Bush a letter some 20 years ago in which the premier committed to evacuating the four northern West Bank settlements in order to make room for more Palestinian territorial contiguity in the area. In exchange, Bush would go on to offer his own written recognition of the need for land swaps in a future peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, allowing the so-called settlement blocs closer to the Green Line to remain under Israeli control.

For its part, the Netanyahu government has argued that the Obama administration was the first to dismiss the Sharon-Bush exchanges, by rejecting a notion that the US was willing to differentiate between the blocs and settlements located deep in the West Bank.

But the Sunday statement from the State Department also pointed to Israeli commitments to the current administration, which ostensibly referred to Jerusalem’s agreement at regional conferences in February and March to halt West Bank expansion — specifically a four-month moratorium on discussing new settlement units and a six-month freeze on okaying new outposts.

“Advancing Israeli settlements in the West Bank is an obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution,” the US statement added.

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