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'The US is still with us, but their priorities are broader'

Senior defense official: ‘Blocs’ prioritized but all settlements have right to exist

In the US, Gantz says Biden not against settlements, but against blocking path to 2 states; official says countries misusing NSO tech are the problem — not the firm itself

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

A general view, taken on August 6, 2019, shows the Israeli settlement of Har Bracha near the West Bank village of Burin. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)
A general view, taken on August 6, 2019, shows the Israeli settlement of Har Bracha near the West Bank village of Burin. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

HOLLYWOOD BEACH, Florida — A visiting senior Israeli defense official told reporters in the United States on Friday that while Israel prioritizes building in settlements close to the Green Line in the so-called blocs, all settlements have a right to exist.

The comments from the Defense Ministry official, whose office is charged with authorizing West Bank construction, appeared to veer away from positions previously staked out by Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Gantz has long defended building in the blocs while indicating that towns deeper in the West Bank were more problematic in terms of reaching a political settlement with the Palestinians.

In October, Israel advanced plans for roughly 3,000 settlement homes, most of them deep in the West Bank, sparking the ire of the Biden administration, which later said that the phenomenon was “reaching a critical juncture.”

Asked how approvals are determined, the senior defense official briefing reporters on the sidelines of the Israeli American Council national summit in Florida said, “We check these matters in a balanced way.”

“Of course the blocs have a major advantage, but the other towns also have a right to exist,” he said, while clarifying that Israel is only building within the borders of existing settlements.

The senior official noted that construction plans had also been approved for Palestinians and that this will continue to happen moving forward. (The Defense Ministry recently advanced plans for 1,000 homes for Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel maintains security and civilian control. Most of those were getting retroactive approval in towns where construction is often carried out illegally, as Israel generally refuses to grant Palestinians building permits.)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz holds a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington, on December 9, 2021. (Defense Ministry)

Last week, Israeli authorities significantly delayed a project for a massive Haredi neighborhood on the grounds of the old Atarot airport in East Jerusalem following US pushback. The official said the matter did not come up in the defense minister’s meetings in Washington though.

On Friday, Gantz told reporters that during his meetings this week in Washington with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the senior Biden administration officials did not speak out against settlement building as much as they spoke in favor of “maintaining a political horizon between us and the Palestinians open, and about not creating a reality that blocks such a horizon from developing.”

The Defense Minister said he told Austin and Blinken that he supports strengthening the Palestinian Authority, particularly at the expense of Gaza-ruling Hamas. Gantz said he highlighted the economic gestures he’s promoted vis-a-vis the Palestinians, and expressed interest in continuing to do so, including granting Palestinians access to 4G cellular infrastructure as well as other economic projects in Area C.

“I make sure to keep the needs of all populations in Judea and Samaria balanced,” Gantz said.

“It is not currently possible to reach a political settlement [with the Palestinians]. Not only because of [the leadership] but also because of the [Israeli] government,” he said, referring to the limited political maneuverability of the diverse coalition. “But it is definitely necessary and possible to advance practical steps in the economic field, and that is what we are doing,” Gantz added.

The senior defense official briefing reporters acknowledged that there can be “lots of differences between what the US and Israel view as a two-state solution,” stressing that Gantz supports advancing a political settlement with the Palestinians that protects Israel’s security interests, and adding that the matter cannot be ignored.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meet at the Pentagon, on December 9, 2021. (Defense Ministry)

The official defended Gantz’s controversial decision in October to blacklist six Palestinian human rights organizations over alleged terror ties, noting that there are over 100 other NGOs operating on the ground and that the fact that the government only chose six “is because we had enough intelligence to do so.”

“Subsequent intelligence has further proven that our decision was correct,” the senior official said. The blacklisting led to a swift international outcry.

The official went on to speak out against a recent spate of attacks by extremist settlers on Palestinians and IDF troops. He said a number of meetings have been held by top officials aimed at strengthening the rule of law in the West Bank.

He added that “the violence we’ve seen recently is exceptional and does not represent the settlement movement, it does not represent the IDF and it does not represent the State of Israel.”

NSO Group

The senior official said US concerns over Herzliya-based NSO Group’s spyware technology were raised “on the margins” of Gantz’s meetings this week in Washington, which largely focused on Iran.

NSO has faced repeated allegations that its technology is being used by regimes around the world to target government officials, human rights activists, dissidents and journalists.

The official said Gantz relayed that he was very disturbed by the allegations, but insisted that his office has the “strongest supervision” on export licensing of spyware technologies compared to other countries.

“We tightened and will continue to further tighten our export policies,” the senior official insisted.

Asked why Israel is not doing more to defend NSO Group if it authorized the purchase of its spyware abroad, the senior official said, “We have no issues with NSO Group. We have issues with the ones who are violating the use of their technologies. We explained this to the Americans and the conversation on the matter will continue.”

The official said that Blinken did not raise recent reports that NSO’s technology was used to hack the phones of State Department diplomats in Uganda.

A branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, on August 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Iran playing a bad hand

Gantz told reporters Friday that the US and European countries “are losing patience” and are realizing that Iran is trying to drag out the negotiations, despite “playing a bad hand.”

The defense minister said no progress had been made in the recent round of negotiations in Vienna aimed at reviving the multilateral nuclear accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Gantz said he’s urged the US to up the pressure against Iran.

“There is room for international pressure — political, economic and also military — in order to convince Iran to stop its fantasies about a nuclear program,” he said.

Gantz shared that the administration officials he’d met with were attentive to Israel’s concerns, and that he emphasized that Iran is first and foremost a global problem before it is an Israeli one.

He also said he’d told US officials that he had instructed the IDF to prepare to operate against Iran, without getting into further detail. Gantz added that the sides had agreed to further develop their cooperation against the Islamic Republic.

The Palais Coburg, where closed-door Iran nuclear talks take place, reflected in a window in Vienna, Austria, on December 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Gruber)

The sides also discussed maintaining Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge over other countries in the region, Gantz said. “There are many steps we discussed that will affect Israel’s ability to be the strongest state in the region for many years to come.”

Gantz admitted that the Biden administration did not provide a deadline for when it will walk out of talks in Vienna in lieu of progress, but he expressed confidence the US would begin entertaining a military option more seriously if talks do not develop positively.

Meanwhile, the senior defense official said Iran is close to enriching the amount of uranium necessary to assemble a nuclear bomb and that it will be easier to act before it crosses that threshold.

The official acknowledged that American public opinion is not supportive of further military intervention in the Middle East, but maintained that as Iran gets closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon, Americans will come around.

“The Americans are still with us, but at the same time, we as Israelis need to understand that the US has broader priorities,” Gantz said separately.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) meets with Defense Minister Benny Gantz (right) in Washington, DC, on December 9, 2021. (Shmulik Almany/GPO)

“America is the strongest country in the world, and specifically because of that it does not rush to use force. It typically leaves it to later stages in the matter,” he said.

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