Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced on Monday that Israel had notified the Biden administration it would hold off on legalizing additional wildcat outposts in the West Bank for several months, but that it would still be moving forward with authorizations announced earlier this month of nine such illegal Jewish towns.
The decision followed pressure from the Biden administration on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to temporarily hold off on unilateral moves in order to restore calm ahead of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which begins late next month and has traditionally brought an additional layer of tensions between the sides.
The US pressure appeared to work more effectively on the Palestinian Authority, which agreed to withdraw its support for a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate halt to settlement activity.
Netanyahu told his Likud faction Monday that he was not really making a concession, since settlement activity is only authorized every three months anyway. He noted that the Defense Ministry body that green-lights such construction will convene later this week to approve the nine outposts along with plans for some 10,000 new settlement homes as directed by the cabinet, in what was framed as a response to a series of terror attacks in Jerusalem. The Civil Administration High Planning Subcommittee will then convene again in three months to green-light additional projects for construction, Netanyahu said in remarks to the closed meeting that were leaked to the media.
While the international community considers all settlement activity illegal, Israel differentiates between legal settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state, and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, often on private Palestinian land. However, outposts are sometimes established with the state’s tacit approval, and successive governments have sought to legalize at least some of the 100-plus unrecognized communities as a result.
The statement from Netanyahu’s office announcing the temporary hold on outpost legalizations said that the Israeli commitments to the US do not include a promise to cease demolitions of illegal Palestinian construction in Area C — the 60 percent of the West Bank that the Oslo Accords placed under temporary Israeli security and civilian control. Dozens, and sometimes hundreds of wildcat Palestinian buildings, are destroyed by Israel each year, though rights groups point out that Palestinians have no choice but to build illegally, since Israel has only authorized a handful of projects over the past several decades. The new hardline cabinet ordered a freeze on the few plans that were approved by the previous government.
Despite the seemingly limited nature of the Israeli concession, Netanyahu came under fire from some members of his coalition. Likud MK Danny Danon, who has long sought to outflank Netanyahu from the right, tweeted that it was “very sad” that the government was “caving to external pressure and agreeing to freeze the development of settlement in the heartland.
“A true right-wing government should be committed to the values upon which we were elected. I say to the members of the government, we have no legitimacy to freeze construction in Judea and Samaria, not even for one day,” Danon wrote, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name.
According to the leaks from the subsequent Likud faction meeting on Monday, Netanyahu snapped back at Danon, saying he should have asked him about the matter before tweeting. The premier went on to defend his policy, saying that Israel was “deepening our roots in our country” in response to terrorism and that, despite the intense US pressure, they had still managed to legalize nine West Bank outposts.
“In my talks with [US Secretary of State Antony] Blinken and other US officials, I told them I was going to [authorize these outposts] even before the attacks,” Netanyahu told the Likud lawmakers.
“All we told the Americans is that we will not authorize [settlements] in the coming months that we did not plan to authorize anyway,” he explained.
“We’re building, legalizing and then taking a break,” Netanyahu summarized. “We’re standing up for our right to fight terrorism, to deepen our roots in our country, and I think we are doing it wisely.”