The Israeli government approved a brand new settlement deep in the West Bank late Thursday, the first new community in occupied territory in two decades.
Over 600,000 Israeli settlers live in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem. But this is likely the last time for a while that Israel will have the political space to build a fresh settlement. Trump is keen to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and the continued growth of settlements – considered illegal by much of the world – in Palestinian territory is a key roadblock in the way of any peace talks.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now trying to both keep his pro-settler coalition intact and show President Trump that he’s serious about pursuing talks with the Palestinian authority. On Thursday, Netanyahu announced he would build a new settlement next to Shilo, a community smack in the middle of what would be a future Palestinian state. He also told his security cabinet that Israel would unilaterally limit future settlement construction to please Trump. Settlements would be built in already developed areas or on adjacent land, and that no new “outposts” would be allowed (an “outpost” is a settlement built without the permission of the Israeli government).
Knesset member Yehuda Glick, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party who lives in an Israeli settlement, told VICE News he welcomed Netanyahu’s announcement.
“It’s a very positive message,” he said. “On the one hand, it’s taking into consideration the request of President Trump, and on the other hand [allows] the continued building of settlements. The only thing that can bring coexistence and peace is building.”
The White House did not criticize the planned new community, telling news outlets that Netanyahu decided on the building of Emek Shilo, to house members of the recently-dismantled outpost Amona, before talks with Trump began. A White House official also said “the Israeli government has made clear that going forward, its intent is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes the President’s concerns into consideration.”
But Hagit Ofran, who tracks settlements for Peace Now, said Netanyahu’s announcement of restraint is a farce, and that settlement construction is “destroying the two-state solution.”
“[Netanyahu] actually means, ‘we will build everywhere we want.’ There is no restraint at all,” Ofran told VICE News. “It’s just rhetoric, and one indication that it’s a bluff is that the fact that settlers are happy.”
Ofran said Netanyahu could still approve new settlements by labeling them “neighborhoods” of already-existing settlements – something the government did last October when Israel announced new settlement units near Shilo. And Ofran positied the Israeli government would continue to build in settlements deep in the West Bank that make it impossible for a contiguous Palestinian state to come into existence.
The announcement of Emek Shilo angered Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi, who said it proved Israel is more committed to “appeasing its illegal settler population” than peace.
But the Palestinian Authority is in a tough spot. Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy for international negotiations, has been travelling between Washington, Israel, and the Palestinian territories to try to cajole the parties back to the table. And Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is visiting Washington on Monday, where Trump will likely seek his assistance in getting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to peace negotiations.
That pressure may push the Palestinians to the negotiation table, said Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. campaign for Palestinian rights.
“This is still the White House. And with a new president, in the hopes of maintaining of what they see as a critical relationship, [Palestinian leaders] are going to give them the benefit of the doubt with what they’d like to do,” said Munayyer.
But the sustainability of peace talks hinges on whether Israel will slow down settlements to an extent the Palestinian leadership finds acceptable.
As Munayyer says, “The Palestinians are probably going to go along, at least to feel this out and see where it goes, until it’s very clear that it’s not going any further.”