Palestinian protesters burn tyres amid clashes with Israeli security forces following a demonstration against Israel s expropriation of land, in the village of Kfar Qaddum near the Jewish settlement of Kedumim, in the occupied West Bank
US-Israeli relations have entered a new chapter of contention after the Biden administration began to put pressure on Tel Aviv to halt settlement building projects in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Naftali Bennett’s government persists with these projects in the hope that they will save the seriously fractured ruling coalition which is on the brink of collapse.
Israel’s latest settlement project includes 3,988 new settlement units in the West Bank approved by the Supreme Planning Council. This is one of the largest settlement projects the Israeli government could approve in nearly one year since it came to power. However, Israeli and US media reported that Washington has asked Tel Aviv to halt this settlement project to avoid escalating tensions and undermining efforts by the US and Arab countries for peace between the Palestinians and Israelis.
In the most definitive position rejecting settlement expansion, Israeli media quoted key US officials as saying that Biden’s upcoming visit to Israel in June is contingent on Israel announcing a halt of its settlement plans.
US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides said: “We made it clear to Israel that we oppose new construction in the settlements.” However, despite US opposition, Israel did not announce the cancellation or postponement of a meeting of the Supreme Planning Council, which is in charge of approving construction in settlements, and is slated to meet within days. It is expected the council will approve the new construction.
Israel views the approval of settlement projects as a necessity for the survival of the governing coalition, since right-wing circles in the cabinet, especially Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, are pressing to proceed with settlement projects. Bennett fears that the disruption of these projects will lead to Shaked’s exit from the government coalition, which has already lost its majority in the Israeli Knesset.
The governing coalition is facing growing plots to bring it down by the opposition, led by former prime minister and right-wing Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Settlements are a key issue the opposition uses to malign the incumbent cabinet, accusing it of failing to build settlements.
Israel wants to deflect US anger over settlements without actually halting construction plans, especially since Washington is leading efforts to revive the peace process. The US has already sent several envoys to the West Bank and Israel, with settlements being a key obstacle that the Palestinian Authority (PA) wants the US to intervene in and resolve.
Analysts and observers believe that despite the opposition of the current US administration and previous Democratic administrations to settlements, viewing them as illegal and illegitimate, Washington will not be able to prevent Israel from continuing with its settlement plans.
Mukhaymar Abu Saada, a professor of political science, believes that the Biden administration’s rejection of Israeli settlements will not prevent Israel from moving ahead, especially since the latter sees it as a necessity for its own survival.
Abu Saada told Al-Ahram Weekly that the current US peace steps are not serious enough to compel Israel to stop violating international law and bring it to the negotiating table with the Palestinians. He added that statements by the Biden administration about a two-state solution are for media consumption only, and that Washington has not lived up to its promises to the Palestinians, namely, re-opening the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Washington, which was shut down by former US president Donald Trump in September 2018, or re-opening the US Consulate in Jerusalem for Palestinians.
The Palestinians managed to pass the UN Security Council Resolution 2334 in 2016, demanding that Israel stop settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and establishing the illegality of Israel building settlements in territories occupied since 1967. However, Israel has ignored this resolution and built several settlements in the Palestinian territories.
Ghassan Daghlas, an official who monitors settlement building in the West Bank, said Bennett’s government is building settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank as if they were inside Tel Aviv.
Daghlas noted that Israel announces much less than it is actually building on the ground. He told the Weekly that Israel killed the two-state solution by settlement building, making the creation of a Palestinian state impossible because this state would be disconnected geographically. Daghlas continued that Israeli settlement outposts not only deny the state of Palestine any borders with its neighbours, but have carved up the West Bank and disconnected the cities there. Settlement projects entirely circumvent the occupied city of Jerusalem.
He revealed that some 740,000 settlers live in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the rate of settlement building under Bennett has increased by more than 68 per cent, as the extreme right represented by Bennett competes with the radical right represented by Netanyahu.
Despite Israel’s disregarding US pressure, international resolutions and stances on settlements, the PA insists that Washington should play a greater role in pressuring Israel. The Palestinian presidency, government and PLO continue to urge US officials to intervene and stop Israel’s plans.
Between Israeli manoeuvering on settlements and inadequate international pressure to stop them, tens of thousands of Palestinians are at risk of displacement and expulsion from their homes, or subject to restrictions that force them to leave their communities to make way for settlers to expand on their land.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.