A Jewish man wearing a yarmulke or a kippa, the traditional Jewish skullcap for men, looks over the West Bank Jewish settlement of Eli. (David Vaaknin/For The Washington Post)

Israel announced a bold plan on Tuesday to construct 2,500 housing units in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a decision made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just two days after he spoke with President Trump.

The move appears to be a clear sign that the Israelis no longer fear American criticism of settlement construction, which is condemned by most of the world.

For eight years, Netanyahu and his right-wing allies bristled at the harsh condemnations of settlement growth by the Obama administration, which referred to the Israeli communities as “illegitimate” and “an obstacle to peace.” 

Trump, however, has signaled a more accommodating stance toward Israel. He has called for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a city claimed as the capital of both Israel and a potential future Palestinian state. Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is a hard-line opponent of the two-state solution and a supporter of the settlement enterprise in the West Bank. 

The Jewish settlements have grown to house more than 400,000 Jewish residents in the West Bank and more than 200,000 in East Jerusalem. The settlers believe that they are living on land granted to them by God and won in military victories against Arab armies hostile to the Jewish state.

(Reuters)

“We’re building — and will continue to build,” Netanyahu said Tuesday.

Netanyahu’s promise to grow the settlements comes a little more than a week after diplomats from 70 countries met in Paris and criticized settlement building as a threat to a two-state solution. In December, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution condemning the settlements, and Secretary of State John F. Kerry spoke out against them in a speech after the U.N. vote.

Asked at his daily briefing whether Trump supported the newly approved construction, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that “Israel continues to be a huge ally of the United States,” and Trump “wants to grow closer with Israel to make sure it gets the full respect that it deserves in the Middle East.”

Referring to a Monday announcement of a February meeting with Netanyahu, Spicer said, “We’ll have a conversation with the prime minister.”

Lior Amihai, a leader of the Israeli watchdog group Settlement Watch, said the 2,500 units represented the largest expansion since U.S.-led peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel broke down in April 2014.

A view of construction work in Givat HaTamar neighborhood of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Efrat in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. (David Vaaknin/For The Washington Post)

Amihai cautioned that the announcement of future homes for the settlers did not guarantee fast-track construction. For the units to be built, the government needs to publish tenders and accept bids from builders.

But the potential sites could carry deep political resonance in the United States.

About 100 of the possible new units are in Beit El, a West Bank settlement supported by Friedman. The family of Trump’s son-in-law and newly appointed White House adviser Jared Kushner has donated to the charities that support Beit El.

Palestinians called the Israeli move a possible sign of more vigorous settlement construction.

“It is evident that Israel is exploiting the inauguration of the new American administration to escalate its violations and the prevention of any existence of a Palestinian state,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the Israeli plans undermine efforts to bring peace to the Middle East and will promote extremism.

The spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, called on the international community to take a “real and serious position” against Israel’s plans.

Jordan’s information minister, Mohammed al-Momani, said the settlement plan “deals a tough blow to efforts to revive the peace process.”

The Europeans also expressed their concern. “It is regrettable that Israel is proceeding with this policy, despite the continuous serious international concern and objections, which have been constantly raised at all levels,” the European Union’s diplomatic service said Tuesday.

During the Obama administration, settlement construction announcements came under increasingly bitter criticism, with the State Department suggesting that the moves undermined Middle East peace and raised questions about Netanyahu’s true commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

“We are returning to normal life in Judea and Samaria,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a statement announcing the plans, using the biblical terms for the West Bank.

In the same announcement, Lieberman approved the construction of a Palestinian industrial park outside Hebron in the West Bank.

“It will be one of the largest industrial zones in the West Bank, in which we are planning to set up warehouse and fuel storage infrastructure, along with other elements,” Lieberman said.

The announcement of 2,500 housing units comes just two days after a Jerusalem planning committee approved the construction of 560 housing units in mostly Arab East Jerusalem, on territory that most of the world considers occupied. Israel disputes this.

Israeli officials stressed that most of the 2,500 new units in the West Bank would be built in what they call “settlement blocs,” densely populated lands that leaders here say will always remain in Israel, regardless of any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of the liberal Washington-based group J Street, called the lack of swift American condemnation “unprecedented” in 50 years of U.S. foreign policy on the issue.

“It may really feel good for Israel’s government not to feel the sting of an American rebuke in the wake of this latest announcement,” said Ben-Ami, whose group supports a two-state deal between Israel and Palestinians. “But it doesn’t change the fact that the world has made it very clear that these actions have no legal validity.”

The settlers disagreed. 

“We hope that this is just the beginning of a wave of new building across our ancestral homeland after eight very difficult years,” said Oded Revivi, foreign envoy for the Yesha Council, which represents Israeli settlers living in the West Bank. “We hope to continue building a peaceful future with the blessing of the new Trump administration.”

The number of new units approved is large, but not unprecedented. During Kerry’s nine months of ultimately failed negotiations between Israel and Palestinians, Israel agreed to release Palestinian prisoners. After Israel freed 26 Palestinians in October 2013 — many of them convicted of murder — Israel announced plans to build and market 3,500 units in the West Bank as a way to quell fierce criticism from Netanyahu’s hard-line right flank.

Carol Morello and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.