Just hours before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington, DC to meet with President Barack Obama on Monday, press reports in Israel revealed that the government had approved the construction of 2,200 new settlement units in the occupied West Bank.
It was the first conference between the two leaders since the resolution of the Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu loudly criticized, but it's not the first time an announcement of expanded settlement construction has come at a critical diplomatic moment. In 2010, Israel announced a raft of settlement construction on the eve of a visit from Vice President Joe Biden — a perceived slight to the Obama administration, which had called for a halt in settlement construction to make room for peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
More than five years later, the so-called peace process is dead in the water. Multiple US-led efforts to jumpstart talks have failed, and over the past month violence has flared across Israel and the West Bank. Settlers have torched Palestinian homes, Palestinians have taken to stabbing Israelis in the streets, and the Israeli army has forcefully clamped down on protests.
As Netanyahu was on his way to make nice with Obama, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz broke news about the Higher Planning Council of the Civil Administration's decision to move forward with plans to construct 2,200 new units and retroactively legalize two illegal outposts built on Palestinian land east of the Palestinian city of Ramallah.
Although the plan was originally submitted back in 2014, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon gave the local council in charge of the area permission to push it along last month. Koby Eliraz, Ya'alon's personal adviser on settlement issues, attended a hearing held on October 21 to discuss the matter — a move that Haaretz highlighted as "unusual."
Though the settlements still need to go through several more phases of approval, groups in Israel and the United States that oppose the construction of such encampments in disputed Palestinian territory are calling foul on the decision, which are seen as an attempt to forestall legal attempts to vacate them on the part of Palestinians.
Dylan Williams, vice president for government affairs at the liberal-leaning pro-Israel group J Street called on the Obama administration to criticize the development. "Time for the Obama Administration to call these moves what they are: illegal," he wrote on Twitter.
Hagit Ofran, the settlement watch director of the anti-settlement group Peace Now, said that the announcement is consistent with Netanyahu's vision for a permanently occupied West Bank.
As Netanyahu and Obama met publicly on Monday for a photo-op, settlements were not raised as a topic of conversation. The two traded platitudes about regional cooperation instead.
Obama said it was "no secret" that security in the Middle East had "deteriorated in many areas," adding that the "the security of Israel is one of my top foreign policy priorities."
"We're with you," Netanyahu replied. "We're with each other in more ways than one, and I want to thank you for this opportunity to strengthen our friendship, which is strong; strengthen our alliance, which is strong."
The Israeli prime minister made waves earlier this year when he disavowed a commitment to establishing a Palestinian state while campaigning for reelection, and has weathered international criticism for increasing settlement activity in the West Bank.
"I want to make it clear that we have not given up our hope for peace — we'll never give up our hope for peace," he added on Monday. "And I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state."
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