Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered that a meeting next week to advance the highly controversial E1 settlement project be postponed amid pressure from the Biden administration, two officials said.
Israel notified the US of its decision on Thursday following a phone call Netanyahu held with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a US official told The Times of Israel on Friday, confirming a report in the Axios news site.
“This is an indefinite delay, effectively canceling the matter,” a Western official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.
The US official said that the Biden administration has been working to have the E1 project removed from the agenda for weeks. Netanyahu’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
While the E1 project was not mentioned in either side’s readout of Thursday’s call, the State Department said Blinken raised “the need to uphold the commitments made at regional meetings in Aqaba, Jordan and Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt to avoid measures that undermine the prospects for a two-state solution.”
The Palestinians have in recent weeks accused Israel of violating the commitments made in late February, which included a four-month freeze on holding meetings to advance new settlement homes and a six-month freeze on legalizing new outposts.
Israel argues that it technically hasn’t done either, but it has green-lit construction in East Jerusalem and illegally also transferred a yeshiva in the northern West Bank in what will make way for the legalization of the Homesh outpost.
Next Monday’s hearing on E1 appeared to also pose a violation of Israel’s commitment in Aqaba, even though the session was to discuss legal objections to the project, rather than to advance it through more significant planning stages.
But given that most petitions against settlement projects are rejected, Monday’s hearing would’ve marked an effective advancement of the E1 project.
The potential construction of a new neighborhood for the Ma’ale Adumim settlement in the so-called E1 zone has long been cause for alarm in the international community. It would divide the West Bank into northern and southern regions and prevent the development of a Palestinian metropolis that connects East Jerusalem to Bethlehem and Ramallah, which the Palestinians have long hoped would serve as the foundation of their future state.
The date for Monday’s hearing had been set after Jerusalem had agreed to put off a March session due to the same types of international pressure, including from the US, the EU and others. The previous government also sought to hold the objections committee hearing on at least three occasions but agreed to kick the can down the road, albeit never torpedoing the project completely.
But delays during the tenure of the current government may well be more difficult for Netanyahu to secure, given his many pro-settler coalition partners who are determined to expand Israel’s settler footprint and block Palestinian contiguity in the process.
However, Netanyahu is also determined to sign a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia, which was the main topic of conversation during his Thursday call with Blinken.
The premier ostensibly recognizes that further entrenching Israel’s presence beyond the Green Line and angering the Biden administration, who are needed to expand the Abraham Accords, will not help his cause.
Accordingly, he has taken a number of steps in recent months to reign in his hardline political allies, including withdrawing a decision to fire Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and bar Jews from visiting the flashpoint Temple Mount during the end of Ramadan.
However, critics warn that steps Netanyahu takes to heed US demands regarding the West Bank on one issue often require concessions to settlers on a different front; they point to last month’s move to legalize the flashpoint Homesh outpost as the latest example.
If the hearing on E1 is indeed held, and the objections are waived — as such petitions often are — the project will still require several additional approvals before ground can be broken, a process that generally takes months, if not years. Still, each step in the process makes such projects more difficult to prevent — and clearing the E1 plan through the objection stage would mark a major win for settler leaders.
For almost three decades, Israel has been pushing the project, which critics have dubbed the “doomsday settlement.”
The project contains two plans north of Ma’ale Adumim totaling 3,426 homes that were prepared by the government of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 and advanced through an early planning stage called “deposit” in 2004 by the Civil Administration, the Defense Ministry body responsible for authorizing settlement construction. Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon dropped the plans upon the request of US president George W. Bush. In 2012, Netanyahu greenlit the resurrection of the plan, but it was later frozen amid international pressure.