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Saturday, April 1, 2017

Israel to Rein in Footprint of West Bank Settlements

Israel Says It Will Rein In ‘Footprint’ of West Bank Settlements

By ISABEL KERSHNER

MARCH 31, 2017


A construction site in the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, near Jerusalem, in February.CreditOded Balilty/Associated Press

JERUSALEM — A day after approving the construction of a new settlement in the West Bank for the first time in more than 20 years, Israel announced a new, if ambiguous, settlement policy on Friday “out of consideration for the positions of President Trump” and, it said, to enable progress in the peace process with Palestinians.

Israel said it was taking steps to “significantly rein in the footprint” of the settlements, allowing construction within all its existing settlements in the occupied West Bank but limiting, “wherever possible,” their expansion into new territory.

How the new policy might translate on the ground was largely left open to interpretation. The Palestinians, like most of the rest of the world, oppose any Israeli construction in the occupied territories.

Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, furiously rejected the Israeli settlement policy. “All Israeli settlements are illegal,’’ he said, “and we are not going to accept any formula that aims at legitimizing the presence of Israeli colonies on occupied Palestinian land.”

Mr. Trump has called for curbs in settlement construction as part of an ambitious push to revive long-stalled talks to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In an interview published in February in the Hebrew edition of Israel Hayom, a newspaper considered supportive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Mr. Trump said he wanted Israel “to act reasonably,” after a series of Israeli moves to approve thousands of housing units for new settlers.

“There is limited remaining territory,” Mr. Trump added. “Every time you take land for a settlement, less territory remains.”

Days later, during a meeting between the two leaders at the White House, Mr. Trump made a public request to hold off on settlements.

But on Friday, the White House gave no signal that it was troubled by Israel’s latest settlement move. At a White House briefing on Friday, officials said they did not want to discuss the settlement question and did not anticipate that it would be a focal point of discussions over the next week.

That was despite the fact that on Friday the administration was preparing for separate visits by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan to the White House next week — both leaders of countries often affected by tensions between Palestinians and Israelis.

While Mr. Sisi has not yet made Israeli policy toward the Palestinians a major concern, King Abdullah faces a more delicate domestic situation where assertive Israeli actions often generate protests. Worried about a public backlash, King Abdullah raced to Washington shortly after Mr. Trump took office to buttonhole the new president at a prayer breakfast and implore him not to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, as he had promised on the campaign trail. Mr. Trump has obliged and delayed any embassy move while he reconsiders the matter.

Since then, Jerusalem and Washington have negotiated to try to reach an understanding on slowing or curbing settlement construction.

During the Obama administration, Israel’s settlement activity was the source of constant friction. Secretary of State John Kerry harshly rebuked Israel in December while vigorously defending a United States decision to abstain from a United Nations vote condemning Israel on the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

But Israel’s latest policy announcement was likely to have been coordinated with the White House. Since the February meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, American and Israeli officials have been working to reach a more formal understanding on slowing or curbing settlement construction. And there appears to be some understanding that Mr. Netanyahu would be allowed to fulfill his earlier promise to compensate 40 families evicted from the illegal hilltop outpost of Amona by building them a new community.

Mr. Netanyahu has been walking a fine line between the new Trump administration, with which he wants to remain on good terms, and the right wing of his governing coalition, which has been pressuring him to increase construction and, in particular, to reject any freeze on building in certain areas.

The right-wing ministers were silent on Friday. The Yesha Council, the umbrella body representing the roughly 400,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, expressed cautious optimism but, reflecting the ambiguity of the new policy, said it would be monitoring the Israeli government closely to see if new building plans came to fruition.

Most of the world considers Israeli settlement activity in the territories captured from Jordan in 1967 to be a violation of international law. Israel considers the territories disputed and says the fate of the settlements must be decided in peace talks.

Most informal peace plans have envisaged border adjustments that would allow Israel to retain some of the major settlement blocs, especially those close to the 1967 boundaries, under any permanent agreement with the Palestinians, in return for land swaps.

The new policy announced on Friday made no explicit distinction between the blocs and the outlying settlements, in deference to the settlement advocates. It said that Israel would continue construction, where possible, within already developed areas of the settlements, and where that was not possible, would build adjacent to the last line of construction.

In cases where legal, security or topographical constraints made those scenarios impossible, new construction would be kept as close as possible to the existing built-up areas.

The boundaries of jurisdiction of some of the settlements are expansive, extending well beyond the built-up areas. The new policy seems aimed at preventing the construction of new neighborhoods far away from existing buildings, long a settler tactic aimed at controlling larger swaths of West Bank land.

But the new Israeli formula left the government much room for maneuver. While it might limit the territorial expansion of the settlements, it could also encourage an increase in the settler population by, for example, filling in available spaces with high-rise construction and by building more homes closer to existing amenities.

“When you build neighborhoods adjacent to the built-up area it encourages people to come,” said Shaul Arieli, an Israeli expert on political geography who prepared maps for past negotiations with the Palestinians and supports a two-state solution. “They become part of the settlement and have access to its services.”

More settlers outside the settlement blocs would clearly make any eventual Israeli evacuation more difficult. But Mr. Arieli said that for supporters of the two-state solution there were also advantages in the new policy, especially if new construction was mostly concentrated within the blocs, making them denser rather than spreading over a larger geographical area.

“The question,” he said, “is where they will build.”

Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group that opposes and monitors settlement construction, said the definition of “inside a settlement” could be quite flexible in the eyes of the settlers and the Israeli government, with “settlers looking to exploit the loopholes” in order to expand.

“It is this argument over lines,” the group said in a statement, “that has led past U.S. administrations into the trap of seemingly endless and irresolvable negotiations over how to decide what it means to build ‘inside’ settlements.”

Under the pretense of restraint, and while trying to fool the international community, it said, the “Israeli government has drafted a policy that will allow it to continue and expand settlements without any limitations.”

Source: NY Times

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