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Analysis

‘Playing with fire’: By building deep in the West Bank, Israel risks DC’s wrath

Latest settlement approvals have US officials doubting Gantz’s claim that he can limit scope of construction, and jeopardize ‘spirit of goodwill’ Biden hoped to build with Bennett

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US President Joe Biden (right) meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 27, 2021. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP)
US President Joe Biden (right) meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 27, 2021. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP)

Over the past four months, Defense Minister Benny Gantz has sought to assure the Biden administration that although the new Israeli government is now led by an opponent of the two-state solution, he will use his position overseeing much of the policy vis-à-vis the West Bank and Gaza Strip to keep prospects for such a resolution alive.

Gantz has advanced a series of measures aimed at strengthening the Palestinian Authority, from authorizing thousands of additional entry permits for Palestinian workers, to legalizing the status of thousands of undocumented Palestinians, to green-lighting building permits for Palestinians in Area C, to sending a $155 million advance to help the cash-strapped PA remain afloat.

Some of the steps might be more marginal than others — and they have been diminished in Ramallah’s eyes by the Defense Ministry’s recent blacklisting of six Palestinian human rights organizations — but these types of initiatives from Jerusalem had not been seen in well over a decade.

They have led the Biden administration to view the defense minister as a key address of engagement in Israel, someone who is capable of delivering on his word and who is a partner in the US policy of maintaining the viability of a two-state solution.

The defense minister also assured his American counterparts in recent months that while settlement building would continue under the government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a former director of the Yesha Council settler umbrella group, it would largely be limited to areas within the so-called blocs closer to the Green Line, rather than isolated communities deep in the West Bank that further complicate plans to form a viable, contiguous Palestinian state, an Israeli defense official told The Times of Israel.

That’s likely why US officials reacted with such dismay and anger when they reviewed the list of projects published last week by a panel within Gantz’s office; the location of some of the planned new settlement home building suggested the defense minister had failed to deliver on his word. The projects were approved Wednesday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) gestures to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, on June 3, 2021, at the State Department in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“This shows that either he’s not really the one pulling the strings or that he was willfully deceiving us,” a US source familiar with the matter told the Times of Israel on Thursday.

Of the plans for roughly 3,000 homes that were advanced by the panel, the vast majority are located deep in the West Bank in settlements such as Har Bracha, Elon Moreh, Beit El, Talmon and Eli.

Official US policy does not differentiate between construction in the blocs and construction deep in the West Bank, but comments from Biden officials that followed the settlement announcements indicated that the latter category is particularly harmful and risks squandering the “spirit of goodwill” that Bennett has sought to build with the new administration in Washington.

‘Our messaging is consistent with what transpires’

The settlement approvals were the first since Biden took office, but they weren’t the first steps taken by Israel that sparked condemnation from Washington. In previous such instances though — whether it was settler violence, Israeli home demolitions, the potential evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem or other settlement-related announcements — the response from the State Department was to issue the same statement calling on both parties to “avoid unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and make it more difficult to preserve the viability of a two-state solution.”

This time was different.

“We are deeply concerned about the Israeli government’s plan to advance thousands of settlement units on Wednesday, many of them deep in the West Bank,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a Tuesday briefing, in remarks that were not coupled with an equivalent warning to the PA against similar unilateral steps.

“We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which is completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and restore calm. And it damages the prospects for a two-state solution,” Price added.

After a reporter noted that the statement was the furthest the Biden administration has gone on the issue, the State Department spokesman responded, “Our public messaging on this is consistent with what we are seeing transpire,”  indicating that the previous messaging was no longer sufficient.

Construction work for new housing in the settlement of Modi’in Illit. January 11, 2021. (Flash90)

Conversations on the matter continued behind closed doors too.

US Embassy in Jerusalem Chargé d’Affaires Michael Ratney phoned Bennett’s senior foreign policy adviser Shimrit Meir last week, raising US objections not only to the large number of homes slated for advancement — almost a thousand more than what was originally on the docket in August — but also the location of many of the projects, well beyond the Green Line, a senior Israeli official told ToI on Tuesday.

But it didn’t stop with Ratney or even US Deputy Assistant Secretary Hady Amr, who is the Biden administration’s point-man on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The matter rose all the way to the seventh floor of the State Department.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken phoned Gantz on Tuesday, and voiced similar objections regarding the scope and location of the settlement approvals, another Israeli official confirmed.

Gantz in turn pointed to the upcoming building approvals of 1,300 homes for Palestinians, and assured that additional concessions were on the horizon, while pledging to take greater stock of American concerns in the future, the Israeli official said.

“The Americans gave us a yellow card,” the Axios news site quoted a senior Israeli official as having said of the “tense” conversation, a reference to the warning card issued in soccer.

To worry, or not to worry

Still, an Israeli source familiar with the matter noted to ToI Thursday that the condemnations thus far from the Biden administration have been coming exclusively from the “often critical” State Department, while the White House has remained silent.

“Biden and those around him in the White House understand that we’re in a complex situation here with this government and that certain measures are required to keep it afloat,” the Israeli source said, referring to the coalition of eight parties spanning almost the entirety of the political spectrum, including several right-wing pro-settlement parties.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, went on to argue that the Biden administration would not want to exhaust its political capital over settlements this early on. “Over this issue, they’re not going to upset the apple cart.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Willard Hotel in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. (Olivier Douliery/Pool via AP)

But a former US official familiar with the matter maintained that Jerusalem was misreading the situation.

“Antony Blinken is closer to the president than any other adviser,” the former official said, dismissing the notion that Israel should take the secretary’s call lightly.

As for the Israeli assumption that the Biden administration does not want to see Bennett’s government fall apart, “sometimes that’s a political calculus of ours,” the former official acknowledged, “but other times it serves as a convenient political cover by Israel.”

Nonetheless, it is a combination of the continued US interest in keeping the coalition alive and Biden’s “instinct” to avoid public confrontation with the Jewish state that will likely prevent this episode from escalating beyond Blinken’s call, the former official speculated.

“But the reaction did jar some Israelis. It was harsher and tougher than expected,” the former US official said. “The point was to create a deterrent that makes them think twice next time.”

Next time, it’ll be Biden

Washington Institute for Near East Policy senior fellow David Makovsky referred to the settlement issue as the “Achilles heel” of relations between Biden and Bennett, even though they are both interested in “having harmonious ties reflected publicly.”

“It’s not the only issue, but one that could really hurt this bilateral relationship and could also be used against Biden within Washington by some who believe that he’s not getting enough out of these good ties,” said Makovsky, who served as a senior advisor to then-secretary of state John Kerry during the 2013-2014 Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

“The Bennett government is playing with fire if it continues doing these approvals where over half are east of [the West Bank] security barrier,” he continued.

View of the Jewish settlement of Eli, in the West Bank, on January 17, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Makovsky argued that while the US position is to publicly oppose all settlement building across the board, “in private conversations there is more nuance,” which is why the response to the latest announcements went much further than previous condemnations.

Still, he noted with favor that the calls made by Ratney and Blinken were not publicized or leaked by US officials. “It reflects the US preference to solve things with Israel in closed settings as much as possible,” Makovsky said.

“But next time it could be Biden on the phone, not Blinken.”

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