The Trump administration demanded that Israel halt all construction in isolated West Bank settlements and put curbs on new building inside the major settlement blocs, under the terms of an agreement currently being negotiated with the Netanyahu government over settlement construction, Hebrew media reports claimed Wednesday. US sources dismissed the reports as inaccurate, however.
During his visit to the region last week, US President Donald Trump’s Special Envoy for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt held a pair of lengthy discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in part to reach an understanding on new settlement construction.
According to several Hebrew media reports Wednesday, Greenblatt set out terms under which the US would not oppose the construction of new homes in Jewish neighborhoods over the pre-1967 lines in East Jerusalem, and would accept an agreed number of new homes each year inside the major settlement blocs, while no new homes would be built in isolated settlements. Building in the blocs would be within an agreed annual quota, Greenblatt proposed, according to Channel 2.
Israel “was surprised” by the stringency of the demands, and rejected them, the reports said.
Netanyahu rejected the terms, Haaretz reported, in part due to opposition from coalition members to a public declaration of any type of settlement freeze. Right-wing members of his Likud party, as well as from the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, were adamantly opposed to any freeze, Haaretz added.
Netanyahu also reportedly rejected Greenblatt’s proposal because it would prevent him from honoring his promise to build a new settlement for the evacuees of the now destroyed illegal Amona outpost, according to Channel 2.
Channel 2 further reported that Netanyahu wants to be able to build within settlements’ “city limits” — which could potentially triple the size of the settlement enterprise.
US sources, however, said the Hebrew reports were incorrect, and that the US had not issued specific demands.
As a consequence of the failure to reach an understanding with Greenblatt during his visit, Netanyahu dispatched his chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, to Washington on Sunday in order to continue discussions on the subject with the Trump envoy alongside Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu said there had been “significant progress” in talks on the issue with the US.
“The talks have not been completed, but there is progress and we will hear about it when we reach Israel,” he told reporters in China, where he was on a state visit.
Greenblatt has not specified what was discussed on the settlements issue with Netanyahu. When The Times of Israel’s diplomatic correspondent, Raphael Ahren, tweeted on Thursday evening that Greenblatt’s second powwow with Netanyahu had ended without concrete results, the US envoy replied that “complex matters are not black and white and require significant time and attention to review and resolve.”
After Trump told Netanyahu that “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit” during a February meeting of the two leaders at the White House, the prime minister said he was working with the US administration to “establish a mechanism” to coordinate new settlement construction.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu said that while he is still seeking to reach an agreement with the Trump administration, he would not “negotiate” on halting construction of new homes in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu also said on Tuesday he had not “retreated” from his promise to build a brand new West Bank settlement for the Amona evacuees.
The prime minister has been trying to get the White House’s approval for the construction of the new settlement — the first in some 25 years — to replace Amona, which was evacuated and demolished in February in accordance with a High Court ruling that found it was built illegally on private Palestinian land.
Last month, he indicated to members of his security cabinet that the government may have to back off the pledge, drawing vociferous protests from the settlers and their allies in the coalition.
Before his second meeting with Greenblatt last week, by contrast, Netanyahu vowed that he would fulfill his promise to Amona residents to establish the new settlement.
In a report released Wednesday, the Central Bureau of Statistics said new West Bank settlement housing construction starts were up to 2,630 in 2016, marking a nearly 40 percent increase from 2015.
The CBS statistics do not include housing starts in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
Since Trump’s inauguration, Israel has approved the construction of some 6,000 news homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which unlike during the Obama administration were met with little fanfare from the White House, although no new building plans have been announced since Trump’s comments in February.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.