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PM meets settler heads, said to tell them he won’t freeze West Bank construction

Bennett and Yesha Council umbrella group reportedly agree to continue cooperation on development of settlements

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on August 18, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on August 18, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held a meeting on Thursday with a group of settler leaders to discuss the development of settlements in the West Bank and the strengthening of local authorities.

According to Hebrew media reports, the leaders from the Yesha Council umbrella organization agreed to continue working with the prime minister to advance those issues.

An unsourced report from the Kan public broadcaster said that Bennett told the settler leaders that he was “committed” to settlements and won’t freeze construction there, and repeated his statement that there will be no annexation.

The reported comments come a week after an Israeli government official told The Times of Israel that, despite the change of administration in Washington, Israel’s settlement building policies will remain largely unchanged.

The official said that Bennett’s new government will operate based on the understandings his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu reached with former US president Donald Trump, whose administration allowed 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 US president Barack Obama’s second term.

Buildings under construction in Mishor Adumim, an Israeli industrial zone adjacent to the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, in the West Bank, east of Jerusalem, on June 16, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

“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 month.

At the same time, Bennett was clear in his meeting with US President Joe Biden that his government would continue to allow for existing settlements to develop, the official said, adding that the prime minister 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, on Friday, August 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.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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