JERUSALEM (JTA) – When Jared Kushner arrives in Israel on Wednesday to promote regional peace, he may be tempted to regard his task as pushing a compromise between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
But U.S. President Donald Trump’s point man on the conflict will also discover how Netanyahu has struggled to push his own government toward compromise with the Palestinians.
In April, Netanyahu announced a new policy to curb settlement building and allow Palestinians to build in Area C, the 60 per cent of the West Bank under full Israeli control – telling ministers the changes were a goodwill gesture to Trump. But Jewish settlement building has continued unabated, and he backtracked this week on plans to expand a Palestinian city.
Netanyahu has faced heavy pressure from right-wing members of his government coalition, led by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, to support their agenda in the West Bank. Opponents of a Palestinian state, these lawmakers have demanded widespread settlement building and even called for Israel to annex parts of the territory, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967.
Responding last week to complaints of insufficient West Bank construction, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said 3,651 settler houses were approved the prior week alone. With that number of units getting the go-ahead in 2017, he said, settlement building was at the highest point since 1992, the year before Israel signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. Peace Now recently made a similar estimate.
According to data released Monday by the Central Bureau of Statistics, construction started on 12,805 new settler homes between January and March, slightly more than during the first quarter of last year. Going back to April 2016, building starts increased more than 70 per cent compared to the previous 12 months, to 2,758 housing units from 1,619, the data showed.
The following day, Netanyahu announced the start of construction for the first new West Bank settlement in 25 years. Amichai was approved before the new settlement policy went into effect and is not affected by it.
Amichai is meant to accommodate the residents of Amona, an outpost evacuated in February by order of the High Court of Justice because it was built on private Palestinian land in violation of Israeli law. Its construction reportedly involves laying infrastructure, but a lengthy approval process lies ahead for the building plans.
“Today, ground works began, as I promised, for the establishment of the new community for the residents of Amona,” Netanyahu tweeted. “After decades, I have the privilege to be the prime minister who is building a new community in Judea and Samaria,” the historical term for the West Bank widely used by Israelis.
While Bennett, who heads the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, and other settlement leaders raised glasses of wine to toast the groundbreaking, the Palestinian Authority (PA) condemned it as an attempt to undermine Trump’s peace push.
“This is a serious escalation, an attempt to thwarts the effort of the U.S. administration and to frustrate the efforts of U.S. President Donald Trump,” a PA spokesman said in a statement.
Also Monday, Netanyahu backtracked on a plan passed by top ministers last week to allow the expansion of the West Bank Palestinian city of Qalqilya into Area C, which would more than double the city’s population to 110,000 from 50,000 by building 14,000 new apartments on about 600 acres of land. After the Israeli media reported the numbers, pro-settlement leaders harshly criticized the proposal.
Environment Minister Zeev Elkin, a member of the ruling Likud party, said Thursday that “a government of the national camp cannot accept such a reality.”
Echoing Elkin, Netanyahu claimed Monday that Liberman had not fully briefed the security cabinet on the plan for Qalqilya and pledged to hold a second debate on its approval. But on Tuesday Liberman denied the claims and, contradicting Netanyahu, said minutes of the meeting proved as much. A photograph of the meeting published by Yediot Acharonot, Israel’s most widely circulated paid daily, seemed to back Liberman.
Still, Netanyahu and Liberman agreed the Israel Defense Forces should be left out of the controversy, chiding settler leaders who accused the military of nefarious involvement in the Qalqilya plan.
“IDF officers carry out policy, they don’t lay down policy,” Netanyahu said. “That is what I am asking, and if there are arguments to be made – turn to the government, to the defense minister, to the prime minister – but don’t attack the IDF officers.”
The army, and particularly Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, have become targets of far-right ire for allegedly being inadequately supportive of the settlement movement. Last week, residents of Yitzhar, a settlement known for its radical residents, mounted two separate attacks on army vehicles.
Not that Kushner or Jason Greenblatt, another Trump aide, are expected to have an easy time with Abbas either. On Monday night, Netanyahu tweeted that Abbas is guilty of “poisoning” the minds of young Palestinians with anti-Israel incitement.
Specifically, Netanyahu pointed to the Palestinian Authority’s recent naming of a square in the West Bank city of Jenin after Khaled Nazzal, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader who orchestrated the 1974 Maalot massacre in which 22 schoolchildren and five adults were killed.
“Palestinian President Abbas tells the world that he educates Palestinian children for peace. That’s a lie,” Netanyahu tweeted.
Critics also say that while Abbas has expressed a commitment to a two-state solution – with a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders with eastern Jerusalem as its capital – he has yet to accept the idea of a “Jewish state” nor renounce the “right of return” of Palestinians to their former homes in what is now Israel.
Kushner’s meetings on Wednesday will be his first with Israeli and Palestinian leaders since being named point man by the president, his father-in-law.