Israel’s Settlements Could Test Ties with Biden

President-elect Joe Biden will never forget about Ramat Shlomo.

On a visit to Israel in 2010, Biden was caught off guard when the authorities revealed plans to build hundreds of new homes in the sprawling Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. The incident humiliated Biden and caused a political rift with the Obama administration that never fully healed. Yet in spite of Biden's opposition to the initiative, Ramat Shlomo ballooned a decade later, reports UNB.

The episode could foresee what lies ahead under the Biden administration—a US president opposed to Israeli construction on occupied land claimed by the Palestinians but apparently constrained in his capacity to stop it, especially when dealing with the shifting Middle East and concerned with domestic priorities.

The next two months will provide Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a crucial test on the matter. The Israeli leader, a long-standing supporter of settlements, may attempt to take advantage of the final days of Trump's settlement-friendly administration and push through a flurry of last-minute construction projects. Yet it may be antagonizing the new government.  

Both settlement supporters and critics expect Netanyahu to proceed with caution. With the Biden administration expected to re-engage with Iran over its nuclear program, Netanyahu’s top security concern, he seems unlikely to pick a fight with the president-elect. Netanyahu’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Martin Indyk, a former U.S. peace negotiator during the Clinton and Obama administrations, said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer a “vital national interest” for Washington and that he did not expect Biden to make it a priority. Nonetheless, he said Biden still has a strong familiarity with the region.

“I don’t think he’s going to want to have a fight over settlements. But if Bibi makes it an issue, then there will be a problem there,” said Indyk, using Netanyahu’s nickname.

Trump has issued a number of diplomatic gifts to Netanyahu, including the withdrawal of the US from the international nuclear agreement with Iran, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and the transfer of the US. The Consulate. Trump has recently brokered three normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries, breaking the entrenched stance of Arab states that have historically withheld recognition of Israel until substantial concessions have been made to the Palestinians.   

In a split from his Republican and Democratic predecessors, Trump also took a far softer stance against settlements. Surrounded by consultants with close links to the settlers' movement, Trump's administration last year announced that it did not consider settlements illegal under international law. Then in January, he announced a Mideast strategy to put parts of the West Bank, including all settlements, under permanent Israeli control.

Israel this year appeared poised to begin annexing West Bank territory under the Trump plan but was dissuaded as part of the deal establishing ties with the United Arab Emirates. Nonetheless, Israel has ramped up plans to build thousands of new homes throughout the West Bank. Anti-settlement monitoring groups expect additional settlement approvals in the West Bank and east Jerusalem before the end of Trump’s term.

Biden, while claiming to have “ironclad” support for Israel, has already indicated he will reverse many of Trump’s decisions. He has come out against unilateral annexation and supports a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Although he has said he will not move the embassy back to Tel Aviv, he is expected to reopen the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem that managed relations with the Palestinians and restore hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to the Palestinians that Trump cut off.

Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi called on the incoming administration not to return to “mistakes of the past” and said the traditional U.S. condemnations of settlement expansion would not be enough.

“There must be accountability and consequences if Israel continues its settlement policies,” she said. “Otherwise, what will be the benefit of statements of condemnation if Israel continues with expansion and settlements?”

The Palestinians, with broad international support, are seeking all the West Bank and East Jerusalem, seized by Israel in 1967, as part of a potential independent state. With almost 500,000 settlers now living in the West Bank, and more than 220,000 in East Jerusalem, the Palestinians say that the chances of creating their state are rapidly decreasing.

Previous American administrations saw treaties as illegal and threats to peace. President Barack Obama has taken an even harder approach and has regularly argued with Netanyahu over new construction. Weeks before he left office, Obama approved the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution calling settlements illegal.

A nadir in those ties came at Biden’s expense with the 2010 Ramat Shlomo incident. As he held friendly meetings with Israeli officials, Israel’s Interior Ministry approved the construction of 1,600 new apartments in the neighborhood. Netanyahu said at the time that he had been blindsided by the announcement by low-level technocrats and tried to contain the damage at a late-night dinner with Biden.

Nonetheless, Biden issued a harshly worded statement, saying the approvals undermined trust.

At the time, Ramat Shlomo had about 2,000 apartments, according to Ir Amim, a group that tracks settlement building in Jerusalem.

Today, the area that Israel considers to be the neighborhood of its capital is experiencing a construction boom, with almost 600 homes being constructed, according to Peace Now another anti-settlement monitoring organisation. Ir Amim claims more than 700 additional apartments are in the pipeline. This week the bulldozers were shoveling dirt and the cranes were whirling around the neighborhood construction frenzy.

Brian Reeves, a spokesman for Peace Now, said the group expects Biden to change the tone on settlements but not to put enough pressure on Israel to stop.

“The U.S. will resume its condemnations of settlements but it’s not going to take any drastic action against it, so it’s going to seem like it’s ringing hollow,” he said.

Settler leaders, disappointed to be losing a friend in Trump, said they hope Biden will be different than Obama and not push for curbs on construction.

“I would hope that they don’t fall back into the old approach that led us into a deadlock,” said Oded Revivi, mayor of the Efrat settlement.

For now, Israel seems unlikely to make too many bold moves in the settlements if it wants to curry favor with an administration likely to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal.

“The No. 1 issue for Israel is Iran. Not the settlements, not the peace process, not the Palestinians,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations. “Anything that could disrupt collaboration with the United States on Iran is going to be off.”

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