Analysis: Israel announces settlement restrictions

After weeks of negotiations, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last week a new framework on settlement construction in the West Bank. Citing the wishes of the new American administration to see settlement building curtailed, Netanyahu announced that any new construction will be limited to within existing settlement boundaries. Where this is not possible, new housing would be built as close to the current boundaries as possible. Significantly, meetings of the IDF’s civil administration planning committee, which approves new settlement construction, will now only take place once every three months rather than once a week, a move that will slow down the granting of construction permits. Furthermore, any new illegal settlement outposts will be dismantled immediately, and existing outposts will face stricter regulations and restrictions.

The prime minster is attempting a precarious political balancing act. On the one hand, Netanyahu wants to placate his hard-right coalition partners, the Jewish Home party, as well as pro-settler elements in Likud who want to end the policy of restraint enforced by the Obama administration. On the other hand, Trump officials have made clear that the president was serious when he called for Israel to “hold back” on settlements at a joint press conference last month. The EU and other international allies, including the UK, have also strongly criticised continued settlement construction. It is no surprise, therefore, that this announcement quickly followed an earlier one announcing that the Cabinet had greenlighted a new settlement for the evacuees of Amona, which was demolished last month after a drawn-out political battle.

Netanyahu has, for now, succeeded in his aim. Neither the settlers nor the Trump administration have voiced major opposition to the agreement. Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, said he would withhold judgement until he could see how the agreement would play out over the coming weeks. However, the consensus among Israeli pundits seems to be that the settlers are the biggest losers of this deal, with several commentators noting that if such a policy was promoted by a left-wing government, the settler lobby would protest against it vehemently. Furthermore, many settlers greeted the new American administration with unbridled glee, even talking of annexing Ma’ale Adumim, one of the largest Israeli settlements just outside of Jerusalem. None of these expectations have been realised, and it appears that Trump will pursue a more anti-settlement line than many expected. Nonetheless, the policy does fall significantly short of the freeze on settlement construction outside the major blocs advocated by Israel’s Labor opposition, which would also be welcomed by Israel’s international allies.

It is believed Donald Trump’s policy is driven by his view of an Israeli-Palestinian peace as the “ultimate deal” that requires concessions on both sides. To this end, Israel is also planning a series of “goodwill gestures” towards the Palestinians, including allowing construction in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel has total civil and military control. Netanyahu has meetings planned with the relevant IDF officials to put together the details of these gestures, which are intended to give the Palestinian economy a significant boost. Attention will now turn to Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who Trump invited to the White House last January, although a date has not yet been set for the visit.