JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a slowdown of construction in territory Palestinians want for a state in a gesture to President Donald Trump at the same cabinet meeting where he approved the first new settlement in the heart of the West Bank in two decades.
Israeli media on Friday reported that Netanyahu, facing pressures pulling him in different directions, announced the new slowdown policy at a meeting the night before, where his cabinet also approved the first West Bank settlement in two decades as compensation for the Amona outpost demolished in February.
Netanyahu was pressed keep his promise to build a new settlement to replace Amona — a settlement outpost built on private Palestinian land that was dismantled following an Israeli Supreme Court ruling — especially by pro-settler hard-liners who dominate his coalition and oppose Palestinian statehood on security or religious grounds. It appeared he was also compelled, however, to demonstrate paying heed to White House concerns that settlement building could pose an obstacle to a lasting peace with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu told ministers to take Trump's position "into consideration" and that construction will be limited to within settlement boundaries and no new outposts will be allowed.
White House envoy Jason Greenblatt has already made two visits to the region, meeting with Israelis and Palestinians and attending an Arab summit in Jordan this week. Greenblatt has been working with the Israelis on a series of understandings over settlement construction in hopes of restarting peace talks that collapsed over two years ago — in part over the thorny issue of settlements.
A White House official sought to play down Thursday's Israeli announcement, saying Netanyahu made his promise to the Amona settlers before Trump laid out his vision. But the official, who agreed to discuss the matter on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about it, signaled that the White House would take a tougher line down the road.
Thursday's announcement said the new settlement would be built near the settlement of Shilo, close to the former site Amona. It also said the government had approved tenders to build 2,000 new apartments from previously approved settlement projects.
The Palestinians claim the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in 1967, as parts of a future state. In December, weeks before Trump was inaugurated, President Barack Obama allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution that declared settlements in both areas to be illegal and an obstacle to reaching a two state solution to the conflict. Trump condemned the decision at the time.
The new settlement approval was sharply criticized by Palestinians. Yusuf Mahmoud, spokesman for the Palestinian government in the West Bank, said "This is a new escalating Israeli step and it shows that the Israeli government is persistent on hindering any efforts to restore the peace process."
Another senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to brief media on the issue, said Palestinian policy now is to maintain relations and avoid confrontation over the issue with the Trump administration ahead of a visit to the White House by President Mahmoud Abbas in April.
Israel's anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now also condemned the decision to replace Amona. "The government announced that they will establish a new settlement for the first time deep in the West Bank in an area that is isolated and that could never be part of the state of Israel under the two state solution," Lior Amihai, of Peace Now said. "The government is doing so in order to appease a radical minority of settlers who want to continue the occupation over the Palestinians and to prevent a possibility of peace and settlement in the region. This is unfortunate that the government is binding to the settlers will," he said.
Avichai Boaron, the head of the Amona committee welcomed the decision but said "the test will be of course the real result and if for fact houses will be built, and if this decision will take shape or God forbid it will remain on paper only."
Over 420,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank, settlers say. But Israel has not built a full-fledged new settlement since the 1990s. Instead, construction during that period has expanded existing settlements or taken place in unauthorized outposts like Amona.
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