JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday approved the construction of 800 new housing units in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, launching a potentially provocative expansion in the Israeli-occupied territory just days before President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration.
“The Biden administration still hasn’t taken office and the government is already leading us to an unnecessary confrontation,” tweeted opposition leader Yair Lapid, who hopes to be part of one of the coalitions aiming to unseat Netanyahu in March elections.
Biden has said he opposes settlement expansion and has clashed with Netanyahu over the issue in the past. The president-elect was known as a staunch supporter of Israel during his three decades in the Senate, and he and Netanyahu have both cited their long relationship in hoping for an amicable beginning to its next stage.
But Biden was also No. 2 in an Obama administration that frequently locked horns with Netanyahu. As vice president, Biden was infuriated during a 2010 visit when a government ministry announced plans to build 1,600 new housing units in an ultra-Orthodox settlement in East Jerusalem, an area that Palestinians covet as the capital of a future state.
Even though Netanyahu was said to have been blindsided himself by the timing of the 2010 announcement, there is no doubt that Israel’s political establishment is keenly aware of the sensitivity surrounding such a settlement announcement now, nine days before Biden takes the oath of office.
“We’re here to stay,” Netanyahu said in a Facebook post Monday. “We’re continuing to build the Land of Israel!”
The governing Palestinian Authority accused Israel of “stealing more Palestinian lands in an attempt to completely close the door to any chance to establish an independent, sovereign and viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
Representatives from Jordan, Egypt and several European governments meeting in Cairo to discuss jump-starting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process jointly called on Israel to “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities.”
Monday’s announcement — the second time in recent weeks that the government has greenlighted new housing units in occupied areas — allows for the 800 homes to be built in at least 10 settlements.
Political observers said several factors were probably behind the timing of the notice. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition has been clamoring for additional housing in settlements, where the population of Israelis has neared 500,000. The prime minister may also believe, they said, that approving construction now will cause less anger in Washington than waiting until Biden takes office and can officially object.
“It may be like a big gulp of oxygen before a big dive underwater when it won’t be so easy to make such announcements,” said a former diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly.
Israel is bracing for sharp changes in the White House’s stance. Trump upended decades of precedent by agreeing to the annexation of the Golan Heights and saw a new settlement there named in his honor. He also scrapped long-standing U.S. policy by declaring that settlements were not inherently illegal under international law.
Most notably, Trump’s peace plan would have allowed for the full annexation of the settlements into Israel proper, a step that critics said would end prospects of a cohesive Palestinian state on the West Bank. That proposal was shelved as part of the diplomatic deal reached last year between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
But domestic concerns may the biggest driver of Monday’s move. Israel is heading to a fourth national election in just two years, on March 23, and for the first time Netanyahu faces a substantial challenge from his right. Polls suggest that Gideon Saar, a settlements champion and former minister in Netanyahu’s Likud party, has pulled enough conservative support to threaten the prime minister’s record-long rule.
“What he’s trying to do is get in the window of the opportunity, in the days before Biden gets into office, to make himself seen as the only Israeli leader that can actually take care of the settlements and the settlers,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Of the new construction permits, 100 will go to Tal Menashe, a northern West Bank settlement where a woman was killed during an afternoon jog last month in an alleged Palestinian attack. Her husband has called for increased home construction as the “appropriate Zionist response” to her death.
“It’s become a clear one-for-one,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv pollster. “Whenever there’s an attack on Israelis: Build more settlements. Netanyahu knows that that’s the currency. He’s fighting for his political survival.”