After new building restrictions, Israeli settlers lower expectations for Trump era

JERUSALEM (JTA) – In response to new curbs on West Bank construction, Israeli settlement supporters hoped for the best and expected the worst, tempering their initial euphoria at U.S. President Donald Trump’s election.

Pro-settlement leaders who advocate Jewish control of the entire West Bank went as far as to welcome the announcement Thursday that government would restrict construction to developed areas of existing West Bank Jewish communities. Others hoped the restrictions did not amount to a freeze on settlement building.

So far, no one was talking about bringing down the government, which has been shaking in recent weeks over the obscure issue of public broadcasting.

“You need to understand that people built up an expectation that there would be a new president, the old era would end, and we’d be able to do whatever we want,” Yesha Council foreign envoy Oded Revivi told JTA on Sunday. “All of a sudden, reality doesn’t look like our expectations.”

Much of the Israeli right anticipated Trump would give Israel a freer hand in the West Bank than had his predecessor, Barack Obama. But since being elected in January, Trump has backed off his pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to disputed Jerusalem and made moves toward the final status agreement he has said he wants to broker between Israel and the Palestinians. Some observers have speculated that Netanyahu wants Trump to push back on settlements for fear of his own right-wing coalition.

Having welcomed Trump’s election by announcing: “The era of a Palestinian state is over,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett at first expressed cautious optimism Sunday at the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “The arrangement is a fitting one, but the proof will be in the pudding,” Bennett reportedly said.

Later in the day, he tweeted tweeted halfhearted criticism after the Israeli daily Haaretz reported leaks from the meeting that the prime minister not only proposed limiting settlement construction, but also a raft of measures to benefit the Palestinians.

“We are back to the same old two-state solution that will lead nowhere but to frustration,” Bennett said. “I can’t complain because this has always been Netanyahu’s declared policy.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the new settlement policy Thursday in a meeting of the security cabinet. Netanyahu told his top ministers that the policy was a goodwill gesture to Trump, who last month said settlement expansion “may not be helpful” in achieving peace and asked Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements a little bit.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. - FEBRUARY 15:  (AFP OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump (R) sits with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House on February 15, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Netanyahu is trying to recalibrate ties with the new U.S. administration after eight years of high-profile clashes with former President Barack Obama, in part over Israel's policies toward the Palestinians. (Photo by Andrew Harrer - Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. – FEBRUARY 15: (AFP OUT) (U.S. President Donald Trump (R) sits with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House on February 15, 2017 in Washington, D.C. – Pool/Getty Images)

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu said that settlement construction would be limited to previously developed areas of the West Bank. But where security or topography prevented this, new homes would be built as close as possible to the developed areas. Israel would not allow the creation of any new illegal outposts, he said.

Citing five participants in the meeting, Haaretz reported that Netanyahu would also allow the Palestinian to build in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel has full civil and military control, and said “we have to act wisely” in eastern Jerusalem.

“This is a very friendly administration and we need to be considerate of the president’s requests,” Netanyahu said, according to Haaretz.

Hours earlier, the security cabinet approved the establishment of the first entirely new settlement in two decades for families evicted last month from Amona, an illegal West Bank outpost. That settlement would not be affected by the policy, which the White House welcomed.

Most of the world considers all Israeli construction in the territories it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War illegal. But Israel disputes this and allows government authorized settlements on land not demonstrably owned by Palestinians. While Israel stopped building new settlements in the early 1990s, it has retroactively approved outposts and let existing settlements expand.

On Friday, Revivi put a positive spin on Netanyahu’s policy change, saying the Yesha Council, which is the main umbrella group for the settlements, would keep an eye on the West Bank — which he referred to by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria — to make sure “these plans come to fruition.”

“The YESHA Council welcomes the cabinet decision to support new building projects across Judea and Samaria, in addition to the establishment of a new town for the former residents of Amona,” he said. “We will be monitoring the government very closely to see that these plans come to fruition, enabling a new era of building throughout our ancestral homeland.”

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Oded Revivi (Courtesy of Yesh Council)

Shlomo Brom, the head researcher on Israeli-Palestinian relations at the Institute for National Security Studies, said that if the policy were strictly enforced, it would dramatically reduce West Bank construction. But Brom said many settlers seem to be betting the policy would be “flexibly” interpreted, which could allow the settlements to gradually expand indefinitely. Noting that his think tank in January urged Israel to limit settlement construction to the major settlement blocs, he said this policy “is not close” to that.

Meanwhile, several right-wing lawmakers worried that the restrictions amounted to a suspension of settlement building. Yehudah Glick, a Knesset member in the ruling Likud party who lives in a settlement, held out hope in a tweet Friday that this was not the case.

“I hope, in contrast to the commentators, that the government did not decide on a freeze on settlement construction,” he said. “We cannot accept this. Construction in Judea and Samaria is important for those who want peace.”

Bezalel Smotrich, an often inflammatory Jewish Home party lawmaker who also lives in a settlement, suggested Israel’s political right had lowered its expectations too far.

“This morning, on my [news feed] and according to the commentators — the right wing claims that the cabinet decided yesterday on construction [in the West Bank], the left claims that there is a freeze,” Bezalel Smotrich, an often inflammatory Jewish Home lawmaker who lives in a West Bank settlement, tweeted Friday. “Unfortunately this time the commentators on the left are correct. The right is willfully blinded.”

Revivi, who is also the mayor of the settlement Efrat, said settlers have been most disappointed by Netanyahu. The prime minister blamed former U.S. President Barack Obama for the lack of construction in the West Bank for years, he said, but that is harder to do with Trump, who is seen as more sympathetic to Israel. Especially after the evacuation of Amona, “people feel that promises are made but not really fulfilled,” said Revivi.

Judy Simon, the former tourism coordinator for the settlement Beit El and a teacher there, said she has lost faith in the government’s commitment to the settlement enterprise since Trump took office.

“Here we have most pro-Israel government we’ve had [in Washington] in a decade, some say decades, and yet building is still being limited. What that says to me is the king has no clothes,” she told JTA Sunday. “But God promised this is our land forever, and God never reneges on his promises, unlike some politicians.”

By Andrew Tobin – 

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