By building deep in the West Bank, Israel risks the wrath of Washington

For the past four months, Defense Minister Benny Gantz has tried to assure the Biden administration that although the new Israeli government is now led by an opponent of the two-state solution, he would use his position to oversee much of policy vis-à-vis the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to keep the prospects for such a resolution alive.

Gantz has advanced a series of measures aimed at strengthening the Palestinian Authority, from authorizing thousands of additional entry permits for Palestinian workers, to legalizing the status of thousands of undocumented Palestinians, to green-light building permits for Palestinians. in Area C, up to the sending of a $ 155 million advance to help the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority stay afloat.

Some of the steps may be more marginal than others, and they have been diminished in Ramallah’s eyes due to the recent inclusion of six Palestinian human rights organizations on the Defense Ministry’s blacklist, but these kinds of initiatives from Jerusalem do not. have been seen in more than a decade.

They have led the Biden administration to view the Defense Minister as a key compromise speech in Israel, someone who is capable of keeping his word and who is a partner in US policy of maintaining the viability of a two-state solution.

The defense minister assured his US counterparts in recent months that while settlement construction would continue under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, former head of the Yesha Council’s umbrella group of settlers, it would be largely confined to areas within of the so-called blocks closer to the Green Line, rather than isolated communities deep in the West Bank that further complicate plans to form a contiguous and viable Palestinian state, an Israeli defense official told The Times of Israel.

That’s likely why US officials reacted with dismay and anger when they reviewed the list of projects released last week by a panel within Gantz’s office that suggested the defense minister had not kept his word. The projects were approved on Wednesday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) gestures to Defense Minister Benny Gantz on June 3, 2021, at the State Department in Washington, DC. (AP Photo / Jacquelyn Martin)

“This shows that either he is not really the one pulling the strings or that he intentionally misled us,” a US source familiar with the matter told the Times of Israel on Thursday.

Of the plans for roughly 3,000 settlement houses presented by the panel, the vast majority are located deep in the West Bank in cities such as Har Bracha, Elon Moreh, Beit El, Talmon and Eli.

Official U.S. policy does not distinguish between construction in the blocks and construction deep in the West Bank, but comments from Biden officials that followed announcements of the deal indicated that the latter category is particularly damaging and at risk. of wasting the “spirit of goodwill” that Bennett has sought. to build with the new administration in Washington.

‘Our message is consistent with what happens’

The settlement approvals were the first since Biden took office, but they weren’t the first steps Israel took that led to Washington’s condemnation. However, in previous cases of this type, be it settler violence, Israeli house demolitions, possible evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, or other settlement-related announcements, the State Department’s response was to issue the same. statement calling on both parties to “avoid unilateral measures that exacerbate tensions and make it more difficult to preserve the viability of a two-state solution.”

This time was different.

“We are deeply concerned about the Israeli government’s plan to advance thousands of settlement units on Wednesday, many of them deep in the West Bank,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a briefing Tuesday in statements that were not accompanied by an equivalent warning. to the Palestinian Authority against similar unilateral measures.

“We strongly oppose settlement expansion, which is completely incompatible with efforts to reduce tensions and restore calm. And it hurts the prospects for a two-state solution, “added Price.

After a reporter pointed out that the statement was the furthest the Biden administration has gone on the issue, the State Department spokesperson responded, “Our public message on this is consistent with what we are seeing transpire,” which indicates that the previous message was no longer sufficient. .

New housing construction work in the Modi’in Illit settlement. January 11, 2021 (Flash90)

Talks on the issue also continued behind closed doors.

Charge d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, Michael Ratney, phoned Bennett’s senior foreign policy adviser, Shimrit Meir, last week, raising America’s objection not just to the sheer number of planned plans. to go forward, nearly a thousand more than was originally on the record in August. but also the location of many of the projects well beyond the Green Line, a senior Israeli official told ToI on Tuesday.

But it didn’t stop with Ratney or even US Deputy Under Secretary Hady Amr, who is the Biden administration’s point man in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The matter reached the seventh floor of the State Department.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Gantz on Tuesday to express similar objections regarding the scope and location of the settlement approvals, another Israeli official confirmed.

Gantz, in turn, pointed to upcoming construction approvals for the Palestinians and ensured that additional concessions were on the horizon as he pledged to take greater stock of American concerns in the future, the Israeli official said.

“The Americans gave us a yellow card,” the Axios news site quoted a senior Israeli official as saying about the “tense” conversation, a reference to the warning card issued in soccer.

To worry or not to worry

Still, an Israeli source familiar with the matter told ToI on Thursday that the Biden administration’s convictions so far have come exclusively from the “often critical” State Department, while the White House has remained silent.

“Biden and those around him in the White House understand that we are in a complex situation here with this government and that certain measures are required to keep it afloat,” said the Israeli source, referring to the eight-party coalition that spans most of the world. country. the entire political spectrum, including various pro-settlement right-wing parties.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, went on to argue that the Biden administration would not want to deplete its political capital on the settlements so soon. “For this matter, they are not going to alter the apple cart.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Willard Hotel in Washington, Wednesday, Aug.25, 2021 (Olivier Douliery / Pool via AP).

But a former US official familiar with the matter argued that Jerusalem was misinterpreting the situation.

“Antony Blinken is closer to the president than any other adviser,” the former official said, dismissing the idea that Israel should take the secretary’s call lightly.

As for the Israeli assumption that the Biden administration does not want the Bennett government to collapse, the former official acknowledged, “sometimes that is our political calculation, but other times it serves as a convenient political cover by Israel.”

However, it is a combination of continued US interest in keeping the coalition alive and Biden’s “instinct” to avoid public confrontation with the Jewish state that will likely prevent this episode from escalating beyond Blinken’s call, he speculated. the former official.

But the reaction shook some Israelis. It was tougher and tougher than expected, ”said the former US official. “The goal was to create a deterrent that would make them think twice next time.”

Next time it will be biden

Washington Institute for Near East Policy principal investigator David Makovsky referred to the deal as the “Achilles heel” of Biden-Bennett relations, even though both are interested in “having harmonious ties. reflected publicly. “

“It is not the only problem, but one that could really damage this bilateral relationship and could also be used against Biden within Washington by some who believe that he is not getting enough of these good ties,” said Makovsky, who served as an adviser. principal. to then Secretary of State John Kerry during the 2013-2014 Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

“The Bennett government is playing with fire if it continues to make these approvals where more than half are east of [the West Bank] security barrier, ”he continued.

View of the Jewish settlement of Eli, in the West Bank, on January 17, 2021. (Sraya Diamant / Flash90)

Makovsky argued that while the US position is to publicly oppose all settlement construction at all levels, “there are more nuances in private conversations,” which is why the response to the latest announcements went much further than the condemnations. previous.

Still, he welcomed the calls made by Ratney and Blinken that they were not publicized or leaked by US officials.

“It reflects the US preference to settle things with Israel in closed settings as much as possible,” Makovsky said.

“But next time it could be Biden on the phone, not Blinken.”

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