Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election was met with celebrations in many parts of the world. But in Israel it has been greeted by a rush to build on disputed land to take advantage of Donald Trump’s remaining time in office.
On Sunday, Israel announced plans to construct 1,257 homes in Givat Hamatos, a settlement on the southern edge of Jerusalem – on land most of the world considers to be occupied Palestinian territory. One expert said the settlement expansion would further diminish the prospects for a viable Palestinian state.
The final day for contractors to submit building proposals is Jan. 18, two days before Mr. Biden’s inauguration.
The Trump administration supported such construction and promoted a one-sided peace plan, drafted by the President’s son-in-law, that would have seen Israel retain such settlements in the West Bank. Underscoring that pro-Israel bent, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to arrive in the country Wednesday for an official trip expected to include the first-ever visit by a serving secretary of state to one of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under international law because they are built on land captured by Israel in a 1967 war.
While Mr. Trump is lauded in Israel for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights – as well as overseeing the normalization of relations with Arab states of the Persian Gulf – Mr. Biden is associated with a settlement freeze that the U.S. demanded while Barack Obama was president and Mr. Biden his vice-president.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waited until Tuesday to call and congratulate Mr. Biden and publicly refer to him as president-elect. A statement from Mr. Netanyahu’s office said the two men had a “warm” conversation and “agreed to meet soon to discuss the many issues that are pending and reaffirmed the need to continue to strengthen the strong alliance between the United States and Israel.”
But in a sign of how quickly Israeli-U.S. relations might cool after Mr. Biden takes office, Israel this week also approved the construction of 100 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, another Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinian Authority hopes will be the capital of its people’s future state.
Ramat Shlomo has been a source of tension between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Biden since Mr. Netanyahu’s government approved the construction of 1,530 units there in 2010, during Mr. Biden’s first visit to Israel as vice-president. That ill-timed announcement embarrassed Mr. Biden and caused one of the most serious rifts between the U.S. and Israel in recent decades.
“Netanyahu and Biden have a history of problems with settlements in East Jerusalem,” said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer who specializes in issues related to Jerusalem. “This [construction] can only be interpreted as an act of defiance vis-à-vis the Biden administration.”
Mr. Seidemann said the planned construction of Givat Hamatos was the more significant step because of its location. If the designs go ahead, he said, it would threaten the contiguity of any future Palestinian state by cutting East Jerusalem off from the nearby city of Bethlehem.
Expanding Givat Hamatos, which is located between two other Israeli settlement blocs, would also leave Beit Safafa, a Palestinian neighbourhood of Jerusalem, completely surrounded by Israeli settlements.
Mr. Seidemann called the proposed construction at Givat Hamatos a “game-changer” that would make it even more difficult to establish the kind of viable Palestinian state envisioned under the U.S.-led peace processes of the 1990s and early 2000s.
“In order for there to be an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians – as remote as that seems at the moment – you need to be able to connect East Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Ramallah. That’s impossible to do with Givat Hamatos,” he said.
On Monday, a group of diplomats from the European Union and 15 European countries visited the site to show their opposition to the plan. The diplomats were surrounded and heckled by a group of about 50 right-wing Israeli protesters.
United Nations envoy Nickolay Mladenov said settlement construction was illegal under international law and called for it to be halted.
The niceties of international law have never been central to the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East. Mr. Pompeo’s visit will include a stop in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967, as well as a visit to a winery in the West Bank settlement of Psagot – just east of the Palestinian administrative capital, Ramallah – which began producing “Pompeo” wines this year in celebration of the Secretary of State’s support for Israel and the settlement project.
Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Israel, anticipating a change after Mr. Biden takes office, appears to be trying to “grab as much as they can, particularly in Jerusalem,” while Mr. Trump is still in power.
The foreign policy section of Mr. Biden’s campaign website says he would seek to restore the Iran nuclear deal – which Mr. Obama negotiated over Mr. Netanyahu’s heated objection and which Mr. Trump withdrew the U.S. from – while “sustaining an ironclad commitment to Israel’s security.” There’s no mention of the Palestinians or any renewed Middle East peace effort.
Ms. Buttu said the Palestinian leadership is hoping Mr. Biden will at least undo some of the steps Mr. Trump took over the past four years, including closing the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem and slashing funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides support to some 5.6 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants scattered around the region.
There is less optimism that Mr. Biden will move the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv and only lukewarm enthusiasm for another round of U.S.-brokered peace negotiations, after those launched by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush failed to achieve a significant breakthrough. “Maybe now is the time for a different approach,” Ms. Buttu said.
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