Bennett vows to press Netanyahu for more West Bank construction
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Bennett vows to press Netanyahu for more West Bank construction

Education minister says Israel should take advantage of opportunity presented by Trump administration, seen as more favorable to settlements than Obama’s

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen with Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on August 30, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen with Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on August 30, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)

Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Wednesday that he would urge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to approve more construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank so that Israel can consolidate its hold on the land.

Bennett, the leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, told Army Radio that Israel should take advantage of the opportunity presented by the Trump administration, which, he claimed, recognized the Jewish claim to the West Bank.

He was speaking a day after US President Donald Trump concluded a 28-hour visit to Israel and the West Bank, during which he met with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. In a speech Tuesday at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Trump vowed to always stand by Israel.

Asked if he would raise the subject of settlement construction at upcoming cabinet meetings that will review Trump’s visit, Bennett responded with a definitive “yes.”

“I think [a construction boom] will happen naturally,” he said. “It needs to be a natural thing that we build in our country.” Noting that he had personally told Trump that the Jews were the indigenous people of the land, Bennett added, “We have to right to build in our land, and it will improve our security.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US President Donald Trump seen at Ben Gurion International Airport prior to the latter's departure from Israel on May 23, 2017. (Koby Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US President Donald Trump seen at Ben Gurion International Airport prior to the latter’s departure from Israel on May 23, 2017. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

First and foremost, Bennett said, he would push for construction in East Jerusalem, where it has slowed down over the eight years of the Barack Obama administration.

Bennett further said there was a need for more projects in Har Gilo and Givat Ze’ev — both West Bank settlements just outside Jerusalem — where he said “we don’t build enough.”

“I don’t think there is a single person among the listeners who thinks that Ma’ale Adumim will one day be Palestinian,” he said, referring to a large settlement just to the east of Jerusalem.

Israelis widely expect that Ma’ale Adumim, home to some 40,000, will be annexed as part of a land swap under any future agreement with the Palestinians. Critics argue, however, that extending Israeli sovereignty to the large settlement, and to a parcel of land known as E-1 between it and the capital, would effectively sever the northern and southern halves of the West Bank, where the Palestinians seek to establish a state.

Noting that during his visit Trump did not mention the two-state solution, which has been the accepted formula of previous US administrations, Bennett asserted that “[Trump] also understood that achieving peace won’t necessarily be achieved by establishing a Palestinian state in the heart of [Israel].”

While Trump has indicated he will be more tolerant of Israeli settlements than the Obama administration, he has also urged Netanyahu to “hold back” on settlements. Netanyahu has said the two leaders have yet to cement an agreement regarding policies in the West Bank. Trump appointed David Friedman, a US lawyer with strong ties to the settlement enterprise, to be his ambassador to Israel.

Earlier this month Friedman said that the US will not demand from Israel a settlement freeze as a precondition for restarting peace talks with the Palestinians.

The city of Ma'ale Adumim, one of the largest Israeli settlements in the West Bank. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The city of Ma’ale Adumim, one of the largest Israeli settlements in the West Bank. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Since Trump’s election, Bennett and rightist lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud party and elsewhere have ramped up calls for the annexation of large parts of the West Bank, including Ma’ale Adumim.

Days before Trump’s arrival, opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union party visited Ma’ale Adumim and declared that it should be retained by Israel under any future peace agreement.

​​Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, left, tours the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Adumim with members of his Zionist Union faction on Thursday, May 19, 2017 (courtesy)
​​Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, left, tours the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim with members of his Zionist Union faction on Thursday, May 19, 2017 (courtesy)

Israel has controlled the West Bank since capturing it in the 1967 Six Day War, but has not moved to annex any of the territory beyond extending sovereignty to East Jerusalem. It later applied Israeli law to the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the same war.

Settlements have long been one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the Palestinians and much of the international community saying that their expansion threatens the territorial continuity of a future Palestinian state.

In March, Israel agreed to self-imposed restrictions 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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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