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US discreetly pressing Israel to ease off settlement construction — report

Though both sides keen to avoid rift over issue, Washington said alarmed at affirmations Bennett gave to settler leaders that contradicted his assurances to Biden

US President Joe Biden meets Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House, August 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden meets Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office of the White House, August 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)

The Biden administration is leaning on Israel to hold back on West Bank settlement construction, though both parties want to avoid any tension over the matter, the Axios website reported Wednesday, citing Israeli and US officials.

The report said Washington reiterated its position on the matter after learning that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had appeared to walk back assurances he’d given US President Joe Biden when they met in August.

At the time, Axios said, Biden told Bennett he expected Israel to show restraint on construction, and the Israeli leader responded that building would only be done to meet the demands of “natural growth.” However, after returning to Israel, the Times of Israel reported that Bennett told settler leaders he had said ‘no’ to Biden’s settlement demands.

Bennett, a former leader of the settlement umbrella movement who opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, reassured the settler leaders that construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would not slow despite US pressure.

In the wake of the report, the US chargé d’affaires in Jerusalem, Michael Ratney, once again clarified Biden’s views to senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, according to Axios. Ratney in particular noted concerns over the E1 area near Jerusalem, a key region of Palestinian territorial contiguity connecting northern and southern parts regions of West Bank.

A US official told Axios that since the meeting in Washington, the administration has been in weekly contact with Israel about settlements.

The website noted that Bennet, who leads the pro-settlement Yamina party, had wanted to announce the approval of 2,000 new settlement housing units and around 1,000 new units in Palestinian villages before he made his trip to Washington. However, a strike by workers in a Defense Ministry department responsible for Israeli administration in the West Bank prevented approval. With Biden having specifically told Bennett to slow down, Israeli officials are now wary of approving the new housing, an Israeli source told Axios.

“There is great sensitivity right now with the Americans about settlements,” a senior Israeli official said. “This is the reason the approval of new planning and building in the settlements is held up for now.”

The Prime Minister Office said it would not comment on private conversations with US officials, and the US embassy remained similarly tight-lipped about communications between the two allies, though it called for “all parties to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution. That includes settlement activity.”

The far-right Religious Zionism party responded to the report by saying Bennett’s coalition was “inviting international pressure.”

“There is a de facto construction freeze in Judea and Samaria,” the party said in a statement, using the biblical name for the West Bank. Israel is already paying a heavy price for the [government’s] failed conduct.”

David Elhayani, who is the current chair of the Yesha umbrella council of settlement mayors, said in a statement: “It would be better for the Biden administration to not get involved in internal Israeli matters.

“We won’t suffer this gross American intervention, and we expect Prime Minister Bennett to completely reject it,” Elhayani said.

Though Biden is committed to a two-state solution that would see a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he doesn’t want to publicly squabble with Israel, whose new ruling coalition is a delicate melding of parties from the left, center and right who harbor politically diverse ideologies, Axios assessed.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who now leads the opposition, has vowed to return to power. A report earlier this year said that Netanyahu had repeatedly dismissed the Biden administration’s objections to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

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