On October 27 the Israeli government announced plans to build 3,130 homes for Jewish settlers deep inside the occupied West Bank, defying the strongest criticism to date of such projects from the administration of US President Joe Biden as well as from 13 EU countries. This decision caused the first dramatic confrontation between the Israeli government of Naftali Bennett and the Biden Administration.
Anticipating the announcement on October 26, Ned Price, the spokesman for the US State Department, said: “We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which is completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and to ensure calm, and it damages the prospects for a two-state solution.”Price added that the Biden Administration would raise US Administration’s views on this issue directly with senior Israeli officials in their private discussions”.
In a joint statement the foreign ministries of Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain and Sweden, criticized the Israeli government decision to build some 3000 homes for Jewish settlers deep in Palestinian territory. “We call on both parties to build on steps taken in recent months to improve cooperation and reduce tensions,” the statement said.
Under international law, the Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian areas are illegal, but over the years successive Israeli governments allowed their expansion, turning a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem- a solution enjoying the support of the international community-increasingly impossible.
It is estimated that more than 600,000 Jews live in 145 settlements built since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war. The presence of Jewish settlements in Palestinian lands prevents the establishment of a geographically contiguous Palestinian state.
However, it should be noted that the approval of the current plan pales beside the construction plans promoted by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the Trump Administration when more than 30,000 settler houses were constructed. Former President Donald Trump displayed a much more tolerant attitude towards settlement activity and declared that settlements were not inconsistent with international law.
The Bennett government tried to sugarcoat the bitter pill with a gesture to the Palestinians, announcing the granting of 1,300 building permits, the first time this has happened in a decade. Palestinians need military permits to build in the 60 per cent of the occupied West Bank that is under full Israeli control. However, such permits are very rarely granted and the houses that Palestinians build without authorization can be demolished by Israeli authorities at any time.
The decision, taken by Naftali Bennett, who has always championed the rights of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, certainly displeased the left-wing parties and the Arab Ra’am party in the rickety 8-party coalition formed a few months ago, with the aim of ending Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule for 12 continuous years as Prime Minister.
Although it strained the cohesion of the government, the coalition partners apparently do not want to break up the government ahead of the crucial national budget vote to be held this month in the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament). Failure to pass the budget would necessitate the holding of a fifth general election in three years and perhaps Netanyahu’s return to power.
This could also be the reason why the US Administration postponed the reopening of the US consulate in Jerusalem that will serve the Palestinian population in the city. This is vehemently opposed by right-wing parties and ultra-nationalist Israelis and can lead to the dissolution of the coalition.
According to press reports, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told US officials during his latest trip to Washington that if the US makes such a move before the budget vote in the Knesset, the right-wing parties in the coalition government will feel compelled to leave the alliance of right, left, centrist and Arab political parties making up the coalition government and Israel will have to hold a fifth election.
In another move, which also divided Israel’s ruling coalition, the Israeli government on 22 October, designated six prominent civil society and human rights groups in Palestine as “terrorist” organizations. It claimed that these six organizations are affiliated with the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which in the past was involved in killing civilians.
As a result of the terrorist designation, Israeli authorities will be allowed to raid the offices, freeze funds, and prohibit raising funds as well as public support for these organizations.
The leaders of the six organizations said that the move will harm human rights, while international human rights groups described the designation as “baseless” and unjustified” and pointed out that some of these organizations perform critical human rights work.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. had not been warned about the move and added that the US, in general, supports a strong civil society and would ask Israel to explain its reasoning.
By taking the decision to construct more than 3000 homes for Jewish settlers and to designate Palestinian civil society organizations as “terrorist”, the right-wing Prime Minister is playing a dangerous game. He tries to increase the numbers of his right-wing followers but causes the anger of his coalition partners, the US and the EU.
Patrick Kingsley Jerusalem Bureau Chief of the New York Times in an article points out: “The announcement has already raised tensions between the Bennett government and the Biden administration, which opposes activity that makes it harder to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip…The move has also heightened disagreements within the Israeli government, a diverse coalition of ideologically opposed parties who put aside their differences to remove Mr. Netanyahu from office, promising to prolong their fragile alliance by avoiding unilateral decisions in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.