The decision by the Netanyahu-led government comes as Barbara Leaf, the top ranking American diplomat for the Middle East, is set to visit the region. Earlier this year, Israel issued a commitment to the Biden administration, promising not to expand West Bank settlements for four months
The Israeli cabinet is set to approve a resolution on Sunday that would shorten the process of approving construction in West Bank Jewish settlements and give Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich – who also serves as a minister in the Defense Ministry – the authority to approve one of the stages. The decision would change a system that has been in effect for the last 27 years.
In a related development, next week the Supreme Planning Council of the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank will consider the advancement of plans for thousands of housing units in West Bank settlements.
Up to now, every stage of the approval process for settlement construction has required approval at the political level. The cabinet decision would limit that involvement. Over the years, the prime minister and defense minister have often intervened to delay construction based on political considerations and pressure from the international community or elsewhere. Under the newly proposed procedure, political intervention would be cut from each of the four stages of the approval process to two stages.
The anticipated cabinet resolution comes during a week in which U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf will be touring the region. The State Department said she would be meeting “with senior Israeli political and military leadership to discuss areas of mutual interest, including expanding and deepening Israel’s integration into the Middle East and constraining Iran’s destabilizing behavior.” She is also to meet with senior Palestinian leaders “to discuss priority issues in U.S.-Palestinian relations, including U.S. efforts to support the Palestinian people,” the statement said.
The decision to build more housing units in West Bank settlements also comes a few months after a security summit attended by security and diplomatic officials from Israel, the PA, the U.S., Egypt and Jordan in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba, during which Israel has pledged to “stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop authorization of any outposts for six months.”
Now the Supreme Planning Council would be able to consider master plans that have not received prior political approval but only at the planning permission phase and when an invitation for bids is issued.
The changes would expedite the construction process and give Smotrich as a minister in the Defense Ministry some of the planning authority. This had been promised to Smotrich, who is the leader of the Religious Zionism party in the coalition agreements reached to form the current government. In addition, the changes would exempt road construction from the need for a cabinet resolution.
The Supreme Planning Council has announced that it plans to move ahead to obtain approval for 4,560 new housing units in West Bank settlements. Hundreds of the units are slated for Neveh Tzuf and Eli and hundreds of others for Givat Ze’ev and Betar Ilit. In addition, approval is being sought for 340 housing units in Ma’aleh Adumim; 381 in Revava; 343 in Elkana; 287 in Adora; and 196 in Telem.
Labor Party Knesset member Gilad Kariv commented: “While attention is focused on the dangerous government revolution [the proposed judicial overhaul], the Netanyahu government is leading another revolution that is no less dangerous for Israel’s future – the annexation revolution and the rush towards a binational state.”
The chairman of the Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements, Shlomo Ne’eman, said in response to the anticipated cabinet resolution that “the people have chosen to continue construction in Judea [and] Samaria [the biblical terms for the West Bank] and the Jordan Valley and that’s how it needs to be. After [construction of] thousands of housing units was frozen by the prior government, an essential need has been created to restore the continuity of the work to what it had been over the past decade.”
Following word of the expedited settlement plans, Hussein al-Sheikh – the secretary general of the PLO’s Executive Committee, who is a Palestinian liaison with Israel – took to Twitter to announce that the Palestinian Authority’s response.
“We decided to boycott the meeting of the Joint Economic Committee #JEC between the two parties, which was scheduled to be held [on Monday]. The Palestinian leadership will study a number of other measures and decisions for implementation related to the relationship with Israel.”