Netanyahu seeks to soothe US concerns over settlement repeal

Laurie Kellman

AP  /  March 23, 2023

JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to back down on Wednesday, saying his government has no intention of returning to four abandoned settlements in the occupied West Bank under a law that was repealed by parliament this week.

His statement followed harsh U.S. criticism and an international uproar over Netanyahu’s far-right government, the country’s most hard-line ever, over the Knesset vote early Tuesday to revoke a 2005 law that dismantled the four settlements.

The Biden administration summoned Israel’s ambassador in Washington hours after the vote — a rare rebuke between the allies. Jordan’s parliament, meanwhile, in a largely symbolic vote, approved the expulsion of Israel’s envoy over the conduct of a firebrand minister.

Netanyahu said the Knesset vote on Tuesday ended a period that discriminated against and humiliated Jews by not allowing them to live in “northern Samaria,” using the biblical term for the West Bank.

“That said,” he said, “the government has no intention to build new settlements in these areas.”

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman expressed America’s concern to Israeli Ambassador Michael Herzog in Washington over the Knesset’s vote. Just days earlier, Israel had pledged not to approve new settlement construction or take unilateral actions. Since the 2005 law, Israeli citizens have been officially banned from returning to the four locations, though the Israeli military has allowed activists to visit and pray there.

Critics fear the vote could clear the way for rebuilding the four settlements, abandoned nearly 20 years ago when Israeli forces pulled out of the Gaza Strip, and further set back Palestinian hopes for statehood. Most of the international community considers Israel’s West Bank settlements illegal and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.

Sherman and Herzog discussed “the importance of all parties refraining from actions or rhetoric that could further inflame tensions leading into the Ramadan, Passover, and Easter holidays,” the U.S. State Department said.

Pressure against Israel’s new government mounted further Wednesday as the Jordanian parliament voted to expel Israel’s ambassador over Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s speech at a podium adorned with a map of Israel that purportedly included Jordan. The incident over the weekend, the parliament in Amman said, “reflects Israeli arrogance that does not respect international treaties and covenants.”

Netanyahu’s new hard-line government has prioritized settlement construction and triggered unprecedented mass protests inside the country against its plan to overhaul its legal system. On Wednesday in Tel Aviv, hundreds of older women calling themselves “grandmothers for democracy” rallied in protest against the legal overhaul. Some marched and others whirled in a circle dance as they chanted, “Democracy for our grandchildren.”

The United States, along with allies Egypt and Jordan, are keen to keep the atmosphere calm as large numbers of Jewish and Muslim faithful pour into Jerusalem’s Old City, the emotional heart of the conflict. Two years earlier, tensions during Ramadan led to an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

President Joe Biden expressed his concern to Netanyahu during a phone call earlier this week about the new government’s plan to roll back the judiciary’s insulation from the political system. Following the Knesset vote, the State Department said it was “extremely troubled” and urged Israel to refrain from allowing settlers to return to the vacated areas.

However, Orit Strock — a Cabinet minister, member of the far-right Religious Zionism party and a West Bank settler — dismissed the U.S. criticism, telling Army Radio that both sides “need to know how to accept these opinions and move forward in friendship.” Strock also gave an interview to the settler station Arutz 7 in which she expressed hope that Israel would one day reconquer the Gaza Strip as well.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid suggested on Kan radio Wednesday that the new government has squandered a measure of goodwill with the U.S.

It has “managed to destroy one of the greatest strategic assets we’ve ever had,” Lapid said. “I can’t explain to you how powerful it is when you, as prime minister or foreign minister, enter every room in the world and everyone knows that you are there and you got Washington’s backing. We don’t have that anymore.”

The Palestinians seek the West Bank and Gaza Strip as an independent state, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Israel captured those territories in the 1967 Mideast war. Since then, more than 700,000 Israelis have moved into dozens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.