Middle East

Israel Is Expected to Approve Surge in Jewish Construction in West Bank

JERUSALEM — In a rare step, Israel approved plans late Tuesday to build 715 housing units for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, though the government is soon expected to endorse 6,800 units for Jewish settlers there, too.

About 3,700 settler housing units have already been approved this year, and the addition of 6,800 would push 2019 past the record for approvals in a single year. The news comes as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is campaigning for support from right-wing voters, including settlers, less than six weeks before a parliamentary election.

With Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, visiting the region to lay more groundwork for the administration’s plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the approval of Palestinian housing is seen in Israel as a gesture that will please the Americans.

But it did nothing to placate the Palestinian leadership, which has already rejected any American peace plan, arguing that the Trump team is hopelessly biased toward Israel. The Palestinians and much of the rest of the world consider the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, home to more than 400,000 people, to be illegal and a barrier to any peace settlement.

“The Israeli government, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, proves day after day that it is dealing with the occupied Palestinian territories” as a region for more settlement, in effect building “a Jewish state for settlers on the West Bank,” the Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement.

The true scale of the approvals was unclear, because some of them may be retroactive, authorizing homes that had already been constructed without permits. Settlement plans are also often “recycled,” going through several stages of approval.

The Palestinian housing units would go up in what is known as Area C, covering more than 60 percent of the West Bank, where Israel maintains full civilian and security control. Only a few dozen permits for Palestinian buildings in that area have been approved in the last decade, the last in 2016, according to Peace Now, an Israeli left-wing advocacy group that tracks settlement construction.

Many settlers hope — and Palestinians fear — that Israel aims eventually to annex much of that territory.

Shani Sasson, a spokeswoman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli security agency that deals with Palestinian civil affairs, said that an Israeli military planning committee would convene in the next week or two to promote plans for 6,800 units in the Jewish settlements.

Israeli political analysts said that the approval of housing for Palestinians appeared timed to Mr. Kushner’s visit and was meant to help him sell a long-awaited peace plan to Arab leaders.

David M. Friedman, the United States ambassador to Israel and an architect of the administration’s plan, told CNN in an interview on Tuesday: “We spent lots of time speaking to the Israelis about improving conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. A lot.”

“We care very much about the Palestinian people, about improving the quality of life,” he added. “We work with them extensively on it. We think it’s good for the Israelis and good for the Palestinians.”

There has been speculation in Israel that the Trump administration might begin to roll out its plan before the election, possibly at a summit meeting to be attended by Arab leaders. White House officials said on Wednesday that, as yet, no such meeting was planned.

After an inconclusive election in April, Mr. Netanyahu was unable to form a governing coalition, forcing him to call another election on Sept. 17. He has been urging right-wing voters, including settlers, to vote for his conservative Likud party, rather than smaller parties to the right, to ensure that he will be in a position to lead the next government.

“No settlement and no settler will ever be uprooted,” Mr. Netanyahu pledged during a visit to the settlement of Efrat, south of Jerusalem, on Tuesday. That statement staked out a maximalist position that appeared to preclude both the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state alongside Israel — a longstanding Palestinian and international goal — and the engagement of the Palestinian leadership in renewed peace talks.

Mr. Friedman told CNN that the administration believed in Palestinian autonomy, short of independent statehood.

“We believe in Palestinian civilian self-governance,” he said. “We believe that autonomy should be extended up until the point where it interferes with Israeli security.”

In Efrat, Mr. Netanyahu toured sites where more than 1,000 new homes had already been completed or were under construction. He said another 8,000 homes would be built in Efrat in the coming years. Most Israelis believe Efrat will remain under Israeli control under any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

Oded Revivi, the mayor of Efrat and the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council, a settlers’ umbrella organization, said he did not know yet if some of those would be approved as part of the 6,800 units in the coming weeks.

While some settler leaders criticized the approval of Palestinian construction, others, like Mr. Revivi, described it positively, as a way of entrenching Israeli rule in the area.

“We have been in a temporary situation for 52 years,” Mr. Revivi said, referring to Israeli military rule in the West Bank since Israel captured the territory from Jordan in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. “In the meantime, there are the needs of the Jewish and Arab population involving planning, infrastructure, approvals,” he added. “I see it as a first step toward normalization, where decisions were not made before.”

Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right minister of transportation and a member of the security cabinet, wrote on Facebook late Tuesday, “For the first time, the state of Israel is formulating a strategic plan to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state in the heart of the country.”

Decrying the neglect that he said had led to unauthorized Palestinian building in Area C, he added, “For the first time, the state of Israel will realize its sovereignty and responsibility over all the territory and will take responsibility for what happens there.”

Follow Isabel Kershner on Twitter: @IKershner.

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