In call with Gantz, Blinken said to protest ‘unacceptable’ settlement building

Conversation between defense minister and US secretary of state over West Bank construction was ‘tense,’ according to report

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)
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)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Minister Benny Gantz held a “tense” phone call Tuesday on Israel’s advancement of plans to build thousands of new settlement homes, according to a report on Wednesday.

The report by Axios, which quoted three Israeli officials familiar with the call, said Blinken phoned Gantz and told him the construction plans are “unacceptable,” citing both the number of housing units set to be approved and their locations in the West Bank.

The top US diplomat, who is the most senior Biden administration official to protest the Israeli plans, reportedly asked Gantz to consider the American opinion on settlements in the future.

Gantz responded that he tried to reduce the number of approvals as much as possible and said he understood the US concerns and would take them into account, according to the report.

The defense minister reportedly also highlighted plans to approve 1,300 new Palestinian homes and noted that he has faced backlash from the Israeli right for meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and approving some Palestinian family reunifications.

“The Americans gave us a yellow card,” a senior Israeli official was quoted as saying by Axios.

This file photo from October 13, 2021, shows construction in the Israeli settlement of Rahalim, located near the Palestinian village of Yatma, south of Nablus in the northern West Bank. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

A senior Israeli official said Jerusalem did not expect the US response to the construction to be so forceful, but underlined that the criticism was primarily coming from the State Department, rather than the White House, according to the report.

However, the official added: “We shouldn’t waste the goodwill we get from this administration.”

On Wednesday, the Defense Ministry’s higher planning council, which authorizes West Bank construction, authorized the 2,800 housing units, with more than half of them set to get the final approval needed ahead of building starts. The Civil Administration’s high planning committee gave the final green light to 1,800 homes and initial approval for another 1,344, a spokesman for the military body that oversees civilian matters in the Palestinian territories told AFP.

The Biden-Gantz call came after the Biden administration issued its strongest public condemnation yet of Israeli settlement construction.

On Tuesday, the US State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about Israel’s plans to advance new settlement homes, including many deep inside the West Bank.

“We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which is completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and to ensure calm and damages the prospects for a two-state solution,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.

Roadworks expand a road to Israeli settlements inside the West Bank, near the city of Bethlehem, March 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)

Last week, after the high planning subcommittee published its agenda for its upcoming session, the United States Embassy in Jerusalem’s chargé d’affaires Michael Ratney called Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s senior foreign policy adviser Shimrit Meir to voice his opposition, an Israeli official confirmed to The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

The two had a “difficult” conversation, the Axios news site reported, with Ratney taking particular issue over the fact that many of the projects are located deep in the West Bank, further complicating US efforts to promote a two-state solution.

The Israeli official told The Times of Israel that the sides indeed have disagreements over the issue of settlements, but they disputed Axios’s characterization of the call.

AFP contributed to this report.

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