US official: Jerusalem expansion bill ‘distracts’ parties from peace
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US official: Jerusalem expansion bill ‘distracts’ parties from peace

Legislation to expand capital’s municipal boundaries to absorb West Bank settlements stalled due to American pressure

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)
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)

A senior US official on Sunday criticized proposed Israeli legislation that seeks to absorb a number of West Bank settlements into Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries.

“It’s fair to say that the US is discouraging actions that it believes will unduly distract the principals from focusing on the advancement of peace negotiations. The Jerusalem expansion bill was considered by the administration to be one of those actions,” the US official told The Times of Israel.

The statement came hours after coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) told Army Radio a vote on the “Greater Jerusalem” bill in the key Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday was delayed because “there is American pressure claiming this is annexation.”

The proposed bill calls for expanding the Jerusalem municipal boundaries to include four major settlements and a settlement bloc in the West Bank that are home to more than 100,000 Israelis. It aims to solidify the city’s Jewish majority, but stops short of formal annexation, making the practical implications unclear. The bill says the communities would be considered “daughter municipalities” of Jerusalem.

In this Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 file photo, a Jewish settler looks at the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, from the E-1 area on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Sebastian Schooner)

Under the same proposal, some 100,000 Palestinians living in neighborhoods outside the security barrier would be removed from the city’s census and given a new municipality.

The Haaretz daily quoted Netanyahu as saying Israel needs to coordinate the bill with the US.

“The Americans turned to us and inquired what the bill was about. As we have been coordinating with them until now, it is worthwhile (to continue) talking and coordinating with them. We are working to promote and develop the settlement enterprise,” it quoted Netanyahu as saying at a government meeting Sunday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly government conference at the PM’s office in Jerusalem on October 29, 2017. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Flash90)

Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement watchdog group, says the bill would amount to “de facto annexation” and be a clear step toward full annexation of the West Bank.

Netanyahu had previously indicated that he would give his backing for the proposal to absorb Ma’ale Adumim, Beitar Illit and Efrat, along with the Etzion bloc of settlements, into the Jerusalem municipality.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, the Old City and the West Bank from Jordan in 1967, and extended sovereignty to the Old City and East Jerusalem in 1980, in a move never recognized by the international community.

Most countries also consider the West Bank settlements illegal under international law, as well as the formal annexation of land seized during war. Israel officially maintains that the settlements are not illegal, because the land is disputed rather than occupied.

Israeli leaders on both the left and the right maintain that the largest settlement blocs in the West Bank will become part of Israel via land swaps under any future peace deal.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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