Netanyahu warns ‘disproportionate’ settlement growth would anger Trump

Comments come in response to proposal on behalf of slain Israeli’s widow to expand Har Bracha; annexation bill delayed until Knesset summer session

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on February 25, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on February 25, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned ministers in his cabinet on Sunday against promoting a massive expansion of the settlement where slain Israeli Itamar Ben-Gal lived, arguing that doing so would anger the White House.

Netanyahu was responding to requests made by Culture Minister Miri Regev and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin on behalf of Ben-Gal’s widow, Miriam, who called for the construction of 800 homes in the northern West Bank settlement of Har Bracha in response to the terror attack that killed her husband, a 29-year-old rabbi and father of four young children.

“It is forbidden to advance a disproportionate amount of construction in a way that will break our understandings with the Trump administration,” Netanyahu said, according to a senior official.

However, the prime minister made clear that he was still interested in promoting a construction project in the settlement and instructed his chief of staff to look into the matter, the official told The Times of Israel.

Itamar Ben-Gal, who was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist on February 5, 2018, pictured with his wife and children. (Courtesy)

Such construction in Har Bracha would require the approval of a master plan for the settlement, which has been stalled since the Barack Obama era.

In raising the issue, Regev read out a letter from Miriam Ben-Gal, who asked why Netanyahu had yet to publicly voice his support for a massive expansion of the settlement.

“It is important for me first of all to express support for the prime minister,” Ben-Gal began, alluding to the ballooning corruption probes against Netanyahu.

“Not only the residents of Israel, but also the terrorists and their emissaries are waiting for the government’s response to this act of terror, which robbed us of our father, husband, friend and son.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff Yoav Horovitz (R) pays a condolence visit to Miriam Ben Gal, whose husband was killed in a terror attack on February 11, 2018. (courtesy)

Itamar Ben-Gal was stabbed to death on February 5 by an Arab Israeli man from Jaffa while he was hitchhiking near the entrance to the Ariel settlement, in an attack that was caught on surveillance cameras.

The terrorist, Abed al-Karim Assi, managed to evade capture following the attack even after an IDF officer hit him with his car while in pursuit. Assi, who holds a blue Israeli identity card, indicating residence in Israel, has been on the run since.

Less than a week later, Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Yoav Horovitz, paid a condolence visit to the Ben-Gal home where he told the bereaved family that the government was doing “everything in its power” to expand Har Bracha in response to the attack.

But looking to maintain the warm relationship he has enjoyed with the Trump administration, Netanyahu has several times warned ministers and settler leaders against abusing Washington’s less-confrontational recent stance on settlements.

In September, Netanyahu told settler leaders that US officials had advised Israel to not overdo pushing new settlement construction even though the Trump administration was prepared to tolerate a limited amount of building.

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, eastern Switzerland, on January 25, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm)

“It’s okay to be a pig but not to be a hazer,” Netanyahu had said, relaying a message he said his chief of staff was given by the US and using the Yiddish word for pig.

The prime minister has also urged his cabinet to coordinate settlement matters with the White House to avoid public spats.

Netanyahu made the request earlier this month in response to an aggressive push by right-wing lawmakers to advance legislation that would annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

In an effort to stymie the proposal, the prime minister told Likud MKs that he had been talking to the White House “for a while” about the “historic” initiative, arguing that the government should wait for a green light from Washington on the matter.

The White House subsequently denied that such conversations had ever taken place.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Yesha Council leaders at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 27, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Ministers on Sunday agreed to push off a vote on the annexation bill until the summer session, which begins at the end of April. This in addition to one bill to annex the Ma’ale Adumim city-settlement and another proposal that would allow Israelis to return to northern West Bank communities that were evacuated in 2006 as part of the Gaza disengagement.

The proposal would apply Israeli sovereignty over all areas of Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Israel captured the West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and has applied sovereignty over the Golan and Jerusalem, in moves not recognized by the international community, including the US.

“In the 70th year of the rebirth of the State of Israel and after the 50th anniversary of the return of the Jewish people to its historic homeland in Judea and Samaria (West Bank)…we move to designate the status of these territories as an inseparable part of the sovereign State of Israel,” an excerpt of the legislation reads.

While far more tame in his criticism of Israeli settlements than was Obama, Trump has several times voiced his view that they are “unhelpful.”

In an interview published earlier this month with the Sheldon Adelson-owned Israel Hayom daily, Trump said, “The settlements are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements.”

At the same time, the White House has avoided criticizing any particular plan that has been approved for construction during Trump’s first year in office.

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