'The emperor has no clothes,' settler leader says

Underwhelming settlers, Israel to advance just 2,000 West Bank homes

Among 1,200 units set to gain final Defense Ministry okay next week are residences for evacuees of illegal Ulpana, Migron, Amona outposts; earlier reports had spoken of 4,000 homes

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Workmen operate heavy machinery at a construction site in the West Bank settlement of Ariel on Jan. 25, 2017. (AP/Ariel Schalit, File)
Workmen operate heavy machinery at a construction site in the West Bank settlement of Ariel on Jan. 25, 2017. (AP/Ariel Schalit, File)

The Defense Ministry body responsible for authorizing construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank will be advancing plans for roughly 2,000 new housing units when it convenes next week, of which some 1,200 of them will be receiving final approval, and not 4,000 as previously reported.

A quarter of the houses set to earn final approval are part of projects for evacuees of the illegally built outposts of Ulpana (in Beit El), Migron, and Amona, which were demolished —  in June 2012, September 2012 and February 2017 respectively — after the High Court of Justice ruled they had been built on private Palestinian land.

In addition, a separate Defense Ministry body is set to advance planning for 31 housing units in the Jewish settlement in Hebron. It would be the first construction approval for the highly contentious settlement in 15 years. The city’s Palestinian municipality is expected to petition the High Court over the expansion, arguing that the settlers have no right to build in the designated area.

Over half of the housing units set to be advanced would be built outside the so-called “settlement blocs” that Israel has vowed to retain under any future peace deal, with mutually agreed land swaps with the Palestinians.

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Despite reports of a surge in authorizations for up to 4,000 units, the exact number of housing units that the Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee will be advancing during meetings next Tuesday and Wednesday will be 1,941 — with just 1,196 of them up for final approval.

The committee has pushed off its scheduled quarterly meetings for several months to avoid upsetting the Trump administration. On Tuesday, it published its much-speculated-upon agendas for next week’s sessions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and US President Donald Trump shake hands prior to their meeting at the Palace Hotel in New York City ahead of the United Nations General Assembly on September 18, 2017.(AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

The plans set to be gaining final approval include 459 units in Ma’ale Adumim; 296 in Beit El, for Ulpana evacuees; 146 in Nokdim; 102 in Amichai, for Amona evacuees, the first new government-planned settlement in decades; 97 in Rehelim; and 86 in Kochav Yaakov, for Migron evacuees.

Several of the building plans on the agenda are for existing housing units that the government is working to legalize.

In June, the government broke ground on construction for the new settlement of Amichai for Amona evacuees, but a final approval for the homes, which the Civil Administration is expected to provide next week, was still required.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been under fire for the past several months over his failure to keep promises to the Migron and Beit El evacuees to build them new communities after their old ones were razed.

Among the plans set to be advanced through an earlier planning stage known as “deposit” are 137 units in Avnei Hefetz, 102 in Negohot, 96 in Sansana, 91 in Modiin Illit, and 30 in Alon Shvut .

The latter building project is designated for the residents of the illegal Netiv Ha’avot outpost, which is set to be razed in March 2018.

Responding to the building numbers Tuesday, Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan harshly criticized Netanyahu and his government. “We need to tell the truth. The emperor has no clothes,” Dagan said in a statement, characterizing Netanyahu as dishonest for breaking previous pledges to settler leaders to advance over 3,000 housing units.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r) with settler leader Yossi Dagan at event commemorating 50 years of settlement in the West Bank, August 28, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“We are tired of thanking (this government) for every bone that it throws at us… The prime minister is missing a historic opportunity that won’t likely recur. There is currently a US president who, even if he does not agree (with settlement building), will not condemn it to the extent that was done during the Obama era,” Dagan said.

During a closed-door meeting with settler leaders late last month, Netanyahu said that his government was slated to approve over 3,000 housing units. At the time, Netanyahu said US President Donald Trump was prepared to tolerate limited settlement building.

The prime minister then added that he had successfully convinced the Trump administration to drop its distinction between settlement blocs and so-called isolated settlements, as evidenced by the reported list of construction to be approved, which includes settlements located beyond the security barrier.

Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi, chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council settlement umbrella organization, also criticized Netanyahu following the High Planning Subcommittee publication of its agenda.

“Announcements are nice, but bricks and mortar are what is needed. It’s time to massively accelerate building across Judea and Samaria to accommodate the huge demand for housing… What Judea and Samaria needs is serious building,” said Revivi, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name.

An official from the Prime Minister’s Office deflected the criticism and provided different numbers for the plans set to be advanced. “According to the agenda published by the High Planning Council, 3,736 housing units will be approved at various stages of planning and construction,” the official said in a Tuesday statement.

The official went on to assert that building approvals in 2017 are set to be quadruple those of last year. “Those who claim that this is not a significant improvement mislead the public. Those who think that political considerations should not be taken into account are mistaken. There is no one who works more for settlements, with determination and wisdom, than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” the official concluded.

Responding to reports, a US official said that “unrestrained settlement activity does not advance the prospect for peace.”

The unnamed government official told AFP that “while we are not going to respond to every announcement or report, our policy toward settlements remains unchanged.

“The administration has made clear that unrestrained settlement activity does not advance the prospect for peace. At the same time the administration recognizes that past demands for a settlement freeze have not helped advance peace talks.”

Criticizing the slated building approvals from the Israeli left was the Peace Now settlement watchdog. “This is a decision detached from reality by an irresponsible leader willing to abandon Israel’s political and security interests in order to please a small and extreme minority,” it said in a statement.

AFP contributed to this report.

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