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No plans to limit settlement construction for now, Israeli official says

Biden only voiced general opposition in meeting with Bennett, so Jerusalem is still operating based on Trump-era rules, which allowed building within towns’ existing footprints

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

Construction work for new housing in the West Bank settlement of Modi'in Illit, on January 11, 2021. (Flash90)
Construction work for new housing in the West Bank settlement of Modi'in Illit, on January 11, 2021. (Flash90)

NEW YORK — Despite the change of administration in Washington, Israel’s settlement building policies will remain largely unchanged, an Israeli government official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

The official said that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s new government will operate based on the understandings his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu reached with former president Donald Trump, whose administration allowed for Israel to continue building in settlements across the West Bank, so long as the construction did not expand beyond communities’ “existing footprints.”

This agreement allowed settlement building to skyrocket during the Trump era, with approved projects beyond the Green Line more than doubling compared to former president Barack Obama’s second term.

“The (Trump-era) understanding may well be adapted, but as of now, it is still the only game in town,” the official said. “President Biden only spoke generally about his opposition to settlement building, and his team has not gotten into specifics with us.”

The official said that Bennett is aware of the issue’s sensitivity and acted to delay the convening of the Defense Ministry body that approves settlement construction in order for it not to coincide with his visit to Washington last week.

At the same time, he was clear in his meeting with the US president that his government would continue to allow for existing settlements to develop, the official said, adding that Bennett had promised not to annex any West Bank territory.

US President Joe Biden (right) shakes hands with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The remarks appeared to diverge from comments made by a defense official in the Benny Gantz-led Defense Ministry, who told The Times of Israel ahead of the Bennett-Biden meeting that Israel would seek to prioritize construction in the so-called blocs located closer to the Green Line, which Israel wishes to maintain in any future agreement with the Palestinians.

But Bennett’s office seems to be the one with the final say when it comes to settlement policy, even though the matter is under Gantz’s purview.

While they have yet to be approved, a list of projects on the agenda for the Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee includes ones in the settlements of Har Bracha and Beit El, both of which are located deep in the West Bank.

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