Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the advanced stages of negotiations to approve 2,000 new housing units in the West Bank, drastically ramping up development in the West Bank and risking criticism from lawmakers at home and capitals in the West, a report on Israeli TV claimed Sunday night.
The Prime Minister’s Office and the settlers’ representative Yesha Council declined to comment on the report.
The report by Channel 2 said Netanyahu is expected to approve a series of wide-ranging and multi-million-dollar construction efforts to bolster settlement infrastructure, including the 2,000 homes — not all of them inside existing settlement blocs — 12 new roads, parks, student villages, and the rehabilitation to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a flashpoint for Jewish-Muslim tensions.
It said Netanyahu supported expanding settlements in ways that would not harm Israel’s international relations. But an unnamed senior diplomatic source told the outlet that the impending deal was likely to face serious international criticism. The US, a consistent critic of Israeli building over the pre-1967 lines, would not find the move acceptable, the report predicted. Either it won’t actually happen, or Netanyahu “will pay a heavy price,” Channel 2’s diplomatic correspondent said.
According to the TV report, the prime minister met with right-wing Housing Minister Uri Ariel and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, of the strongly pro-settlement Jewish Home coalition party, and with Ze’ev Hever, the head of West Bank development company Amana, last Wednesday.
During the meeting, Bennett encouraged Netanyahu to expand the building efforts in the West Bank, arguing that the coalition’s centrist and left-wing parties have made it clear they do not seek new elections in the near future, and would therefore not dissolve the current coalition due to the move.
Following the meeting, the Prime Minister’s Office initiated negotiations with the Yesha Council on the new units, the majority of which would permit construction within the settlement blocs, Channel 2 reported.
The report added that the prime minister was slated to discuss the series of dramatic projects with Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, Bennett, and Ariel on Wednesday. It said the ministers were expected to approve the plans.
The keystone of the project would be the approval of 2,000 new units, primarily in settlement blocs, but some also in more remote areas, according to the report.
Infrastructure projects would include building 12 new roads in the West Bank, establishing three new parks, student villages, the possible post-facto approval of illegal outposts, and refurbishing the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
The list also includes the building of a promenade in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc south of Jerusalem in memory of three teenagers kidnapped and killed in the area by a Hamas cell on June 12 — Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel.
Jewish Home party lawmakers and settlement officials have accused Netanyahu lately of imposing a de-facto freeze on construction in the West Bank, with Uri Ariel threatening consequences if it was not lifted.
In response to the planned building, a senior diplomatic source told Channel 2: “Netanyahu is likely to encounter a wide international front opposed to building in the settlements. When there are no negotiations [with the Palestinians], Netanyahu’s ability to maneuver is virtually nil.”
The left-wing Labor Party released a statement following the airing of the TV report, calling on Lapid, who heads the centrist Yesh Atid party, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, of the center-left Hatnua party, to block the move.
“The prime minister is selling out the political interests of the state of Israel in exchange for a few more months as prime minister,” the Labor Party wrote in a statement. “If this is Netanyahu’s solution to the acute political crisis, or the issue of the high cost of living in Israel, then he has completely lost his way.”
The Tomb of the Patriarchs, called the Ibrahimi Mosque by Muslims, is sacred to both religions, and changing the status quo of the site could inflame regional tensions.
Tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank have already ramped up in recent months against the backdrop of reports of new settlement approvals and Jewish purchases of homes in East Jerusalem, both of which were condemned by the international community.
In October, Peace Now revealed that the Jerusalem municipality okayed the construction of some 2,500 homes for Jews and Arabs in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood, drawing an uncharacteristically harsh response from the US.
Washington officials launched a coordinated attack on Israeli plans to push forward new housing in the East Jerusalem locale, saying the move would distance Israel from “even its closest allies” and raise questions about its commitment to seeking peace with the Palestinians.
The administration also criticized the secretive entry of Jewish families to the largely Arab Silwan neighborhood just outside the Old City walls in East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu responded by implying that the US had jumped to incorrect conclusions about the Givat Hamatos neighborhood, where plans are to build homes for Jews and Arabs, and by insisting on Israeli Jews’ and Arabs’ rights to live anywhere in Jerusalem.
“It’s worth learning the information properly before deciding to take a position like that,” he told reporters.
The US later rejected Netanyahu’s claim.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the US was well aware of the situation in the East Jerusalem neighborhood, as sources in Jerusalem had provided the government with clear information regarding the approved construction plans. A few days later, in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Netanyahu criticized the US statement, saying it went “against American values” — setting off a new round of condemnation from the White House.