ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 150

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Abraham Accords members remain mum on outpost legalizations

Washington, European powers issue joint condemnation of Israeli settlement plans

Statement by foreign ministers of the US, UK, France, Germany and Italy shows extent of their frustration with Netanyahu government

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

A photo sent out on February 12, 2023, shows settler activists at the illegal Gofna outpost in the West Bank. (Courtesy)
A photo sent out on February 12, 2023, shows settler activists at the illegal Gofna outpost in the West Bank. (Courtesy)

The foreign ministers of the US, the UK, France, Germany and Italy issued a joint statement on Tuesday condemning Israel’s decision to legalize nine outposts and advance plans for some 10,000 new settlement homes in the West Bank.

The steps to further entrench Israel’s presence in the West Bank were unanimously approved on Sunday by the cabinet, which framed the measures as a response to a series of terror attacks in Jerusalem.

Most of the foreign ministers’ countries had already condemned the Israeli announcement individually, so Tuesday’s statement appeared to represent an attempt to drive home the extent of their frustration with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government.

The top diplomats said they were “deeply troubled” by the cabinet’s decision and “strongly oppose these unilateral actions which will only serve to exacerbate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and undermine efforts to achieve a negotiated two-state solution.”

“We continue to support a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in the Middle East, which must be achieved through direct negotiations between the parties. Israelis and Palestinians both deserve to live in peace, with equal measures of freedom, security, and prosperity,” the foreign ministers continued. “We reaffirm our commitment to helping Israelis and Palestinians fulfill the vision of an Israel fully integrated into the Middle East living alongside a sovereign, viable Palestinian state.

“We continue to closely monitor developments on the ground which impact the viability of the two-state solution and stability in the region at large.”

Construction work in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev, near the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank, on October 28, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Later Tuesday, Canada issued its own statement condemning the move, saying it “strongly opposes the expansion of settlements” and that it believes “such unilateral actions jeopardize efforts to achieve comprehensive, just and lasting peace.”

While the US has led the international pushback, it has indicated that verbal condemnations will be the extent of its efforts. “Israel, of course, is going to make its own sovereign decisions,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday.

The plans to further entrench Israel’s presence in the West Bank have also been lambasted by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, the United Nations secretary-general, Norway, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. Saudi Arabia, with which Netanyahu is keen on normalizing relations, called the Israeli plan “a blatantly illegal act.”

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh blasted Sunday’s announcement as “a recipe for escalation, whose dangerous consequences for the region and the world cannot be avoided, as they threaten the Palestinians’ [very] existence.”

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir responded dismissively to the joint statement Tuesday, telling “the Americans and Europeans [to] stop worrying.”

“This is our mission… Nine [outposts] is nice, but it is not enough. We want many more [legalized],” Ben Gvir said.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich directed his comments to the US condemnation in particular, saying that Israel had “clarified our position to the Americans” and that “disagreements are allowed, even between friends.”

On Monday, Israel issued a statement in the name of an anonymous senior diplomatic official who appeared similarly dismissive of the US blowback, saying Jerusalem was not surprised by it.

“We have had differences of opinion on this issue for decades,” the statement said, pointing out that the illegal outposts being legalized were not new and that some of them had existed for several decades. “These disagreements did not and will not harm the strong alliance between Israel and the US.”

Notably absent from the list of countries condemning Israel were Abraham Accords signatories UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. Since signing normalization agreements with Israel in 2020, the three countries have largely focused their criticism of Israel on matters pertaining to Jerusalem, not the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 12, 2023. At right is Itamar Ben Gvir. (Amit Shabi/Pool)

The outposts that Israel plans to legalize are Avigayil, Beit Hogla, Givat Harel, Givat Arnon, Mitzpe Yehuda, Malachei Hashalom, Asahel, Sde Boaz and Shacharit.

To legalize the outposts, the government will have to prove that they were established on what Israel considers to be state land. This will likely be difficult, given that many of them, including almost all of Sde Boaz and Givat Harel, were built on private Palestinian land.

The High Court of Justice is likely to object to such legalizations, making the process drag on for months, if not years. However, the new hardline government is simultaneously advancing a series of contentious bills that would significantly restrict the ability of the judiciary to overrule such cabinet decisions. This is partially why settler leaders are among the most ardent advocates of plans to overhaul the judiciary.

One of the outposts, Givat Arnon, is located on land designated as an Israel Defense Forces firing zone in the northern West Bank, exposing a discrepancy between how the government treats unauthorized Israeli and Palestinian construction, given that the state has moved to demolish Palestinian villages in an area known as Masafer Yatta that was also designated as a military firing zone.

Netanyahu also said that his cabinet members agreed to have the Defense Ministry body responsible for authorizing settlement construction convene in the coming days to advance plans for new Israeli construction in the West Bank.

Smotrich, a settler himself, said in a statement that plans for roughly 10,000 homes would soon be advanced, in what would be the largest-ever batch of settler homes advanced by the ministry’s Civil Administration in one sitting.

While the international community considers all settlements illegal, Israel differentiates between settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state, and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, often on private Palestinian land. However, outposts are sometimes established with the state’s tacit approval, and successive governments have sought to legalize at least some of the 100-plus unrecognized communities as a result.

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