Israel moves swiftly on Trump support to expand settlements

An Israeli settlement being built in the West Bank city of Hebron this month. Such settlements are viewed by much of the world as illegal and major stumbling blocks to peace efforts as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their futu
An Israeli settlement being built in the West Bank city of Hebron this month. Such settlements are viewed by much of the world as illegal and major stumbling blocks to peace efforts as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Move seen as jeopardising two-state solution that is basis of peace talks with Palestinians

JERUSALEM • Israel has moved immediately to take advantage of US President Donald Trump's pledges of support, announcing this week a major settlement expansion that deeply concerns those hoping to salvage a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Since Mr Trump's inauguration last week, Israel has approved some 3,000 settler homes in the occupied West Bank and in annexed east Jerusalem, signalling a sharp change of pace from such projects during the years of former president Barack Obama.

"Netanyahu is taking advantage of the presidential transition in the United States in order to appease the settlers, a small minority of the Israeli public, and score political points with his right flank," said the settlement watchdog group Peace Now. It added that Israel's government was "jeopardising the two-state solution", the basis of years of peace negotiations.

Mr Obama's administration, like much of the world, repeatedly called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to halt settlement expansion, warning that it was gradually eating away at the possibility of a two-state solution.

In a rare move, Mr Obama's White House even declined to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution in the waning days of his administration, condemning Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.

Such actions deeply angered Israel, but the US is its most important ally, providing it with more than US$3 billion (US$4.3 billion) a year in defence aid, leaving it little choice but to pay heed.

COVERING ALL BASES

Netanyahu is taking advantage of the presidential transition in the United States in order to appease the settlers, a small minority of the Israeli public, and score political points with his right flank.

SETTLEMENT WATCHDOG GROUP PEACE NOW, on the new Israeli announcement.

Israel expects a far different reception from Mr Trump, who has pledged strong support and called for the UN anti-settlement resolution to be vetoed.

Mr Netanyahu, who heads what is seen as the most right-wing government in Israeli history, spoke with the new US President by phone on Sunday and the two are due to meet in person early next month.

In a telling break with the previous administration, the White House did not condemn Israel's settlement announcements.

Israel continues to be a huge ally of the US, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Tuesday, when asked about Mr Trump's perspective on settlement expansion.

"He wants to grow closer to Israel to make sure it gets the full respect in the Middle East."

Israeli settlements are viewed by much of the world as illegal and major stumbling blocks to peace efforts as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.

Mr Netanyahu faces strong pressure from within his coalition to expand settlement building, with some ministers opposing a Palestinian state outright and advocating an Israeli annexation of most of the West Bank. Mr Netanyahu, who has said he still supports a two-state solution, has found himself caught between pleasing his right-wing base while restraining hardliners in his coalition pushing for more drastic moves, some analysts say.

The new settlement announcements fit that pattern, but the question remains of how far Mr Netanyahu will go and if he will eventually distance himself from hardliners and move towards the centre.

Mr Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group think-tank said Mr Netanyahu was "trying to deflect (far-right pressure) with such announcements and he will need to do more of them in the foreseeable future". A fresh outbreak of lone-wolf Palestinian attacks could occur as a result, he added.

Regional diplomacy could come into play. Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab nations with peace treaties with Israel, condemned the settlement announcements. But both also cooperate with Israel on security and intelligence to fend off militants and would be hesitant to end it, analysts say.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2017, with the headline 'Israel moves swiftly on Trump support to expand settlements'. Print Edition | Subscribe