Wave of West Bank Settlement Expansion Fuels US-Israel Tensions
Analysts say that while Israel’s special relationship with the US still seems to be “immune” to challenges, the Netanyahu government’s policies are driving a wedge between the allies
By Keren Setton/The Media Line
Tensions between Israel and the US have increased since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition, Israel’s most right-wing to date, came to power in late December.
Last week, in response to recent attacks on Israelis by Palestinian gunmen, Netanyahu’s government approved plans to build 5,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, a move that will likely fuel tensions between Washington and Jerusalem further.
The Biden Administration has yet to invite Netanyahu to visit, a departure from previous administrations, with US presidents usually inviting Israeli leaders to Washington within the first few months, if not weeks, after taking office.
President Joe Biden has confirmed he would not be inviting Netanyahu “in the near term.” The snub has been perceived by many as a signal of American disapproval.
The Netanyahu government has vowed as a matter of general policy to increase Israel’s presence in the West Bank.
US-Israel disagreements are not only over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial reforms, which critics call a “coup,” have also driven a wedge between the allies.
“The relationship continues to deteriorate. The crisis will continue as long as the judicial reform is on the table,” said Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on the US at Bar-Ilan University and senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
Another stress on the US-Israel relationship is the increased violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
In response to a series of lethal Palestinian attacks against Israelis, Israel has increased its military activities in the West Bank, and frequent Israeli raids have killed over 135 Palestinians since the beginning of 2023. Although many of those killed were combatants, Palestinian civilians, including children, have also been killed or injured.
Jewish settlers have also displayed increased violence against Palestinian lives and property, setting fire to Palestinian homes and vehicles and causing deaths, injuries, and widespread destruction.
The Israeli authorities, however, have been slow to arrest or prosecute perpetrators.
The new government’s coalition agreement grants Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the ultra-right Religious Zionism party, authority over settlement policy. A settler himself, Smotrich has promised to double the Jewish population in the West Bank.
Smotrich’s membership in Israel’s ruling coalition has been of particular concern to the White House. During a recent visit to the US, not a single American official met with him, a rare and obvious snub.
Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War, and most members of the current government view the area as an integral part of the Jewish homeland.
The international community, however, considers the Israeli presence a military occupation and views the settling of 700,000 Jews in the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the years as illegal.
Palestinians consider the West Bank and East Jerusalem the core of their future state.
The previous US president, Donald Trump, reversed America’s long-standing policy and offered some Israeli settlements legitimacy, calling them not “inconsistent with international law.” This position drew global ire.
Peace Now, a left-wing Israeli group that regularly monitors settlement construction, said last week that the Israeli government had already broken records for settlement activity. Since the beginning of the year, Israeli authorities had approved the construction of over 13,000 new housing units, the group said.
“The Israeli government is pushing us at an unprecedented pace towards the full annexation of the West Bank,” Peace Now said, echoing US concerns.
A US State Department spokesman told The Media Line: “The US has been clear that we are opposed to unilateral actions that escalate tensions. This certainly includes the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and the legalization of outposts.”
“Outposts” are small, unauthorized settlements that Israeli governments often retroactively legalize.
It is unclear whether Biden will officially reverse his predecessor’s policy towards Israeli settlements. Last week, the US confirmed that it would cut support for technological and scientific research by Israeli institutions in the West Bank, a possible indicator of the administration’s intention of returning to previous US policy.
“[This] is reflective of the long-standing US position going back decades,” US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.
For decades, Republican and Democratic administrations have supported a two-state solution in which the West Bank forms the bulk of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Trump’s policy was a major departure from this position.
Marc Zell, a US Republican party activist in Israel, said that the current administration is “basically reversing the [Trump] policy” and promoting “anti-settlement policies.” The recent Israeli announcement of new construction was just a “convenient excuse” for the US administration to cut support to Israeli research institutions in the West Bank.
“I don’t think there is any question about where the administration is headed,” Zell said.
Israel has been expanding its settlements for years. Although construction has occasionally been curtailed, Israel has meticulously cemented its West Bank presence, creating a reality that seems likely to impede any attempt to establish a Palestinian state. And while the US has never liked the settlements, it has also not taken concrete steps to oppose them.
“Beyond making statements of concern and urging, the Biden Administration is unlikely to take any additional steps aimed at reining in Israeli settlements,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Although the Biden Administration is “certainly not happy with the direction of events on the ground, including the massive increase in settlement expansion and almost daily violence,” it is not likely to take much action.
“As long as the costs of the status quo are borne primarily by Palestinians, the administration will be content to mostly sit on the sidelines,” Elgindy said. “Palestinians and the two-state solution are extremely low on the list of priorities, and the administration has made it clear that it is not interested in expending real political capital on either.”
In 2016, a tumultuous relationship between Netanyahu and then-President Barack Obama prompted the US to refrain from vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as illegal.
This failure to veto was a departure from the traditional US policy of shielding Israel from censure in the UN’s leading forum. The US typically wields its veto against condemnations of Israel in the Security Council, even when it disapproves of the Israeli policy in question.
This may be where the Biden Administration, many of whose members were prominent Obama Administration officials, is now headed.
US actions on Israeli policy in the UN are “conditioned by the status of relations” between the two countries, Gilboa said. “If this crisis continues, the US could very possibly not veto [future] anti-Israeli resolutions,” he said.
In the past, the US and Israel have overcome their disagreements, but the tensions seem especially high at this time. Although the Biden Administration’s lack of an invitation to Netanyahu to visit may sting, it has not changed Israeli government policy. However, the US has other levers to pull.
The US “has enormous influence [over Israel] given its $3.8 billion in annual” aid, as well as “the many other military, political, diplomatic, economic, technological, and other benefits Israel receives as a result of the long-standing special relationship” with the US, Elgindy said.
Until now, the Biden Administration has avoided using this leverage, dismissing the notion of anything approaching aid conditionality as “absurd.”
Elgindy believes that the US-Israel relationship is still “immune” to threats caused by disagreement over settlements or settler violence.
However, as Israel entrenches itself further in the West Bank, this immunity may be increasingly challenged.
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