Settlers mourn their Trump honeymoon as the Biden administration looms

A view of construction work taking place in an Israeli settlement in Jerusalem (Mostafa Alkharouf - Anadolu Agency)

Adnan Abu Amer

Middle East Monitor  /  December 10, 2020

As the countdown begins for US President-elect Joe Biden to enter the White House, predictions are rife about the future of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, especially the possibility of curbing settlement projects, as happened during the Obama presidency. There are also predictions that the Israeli settlers will not be given a free rein to steal Palestinian land, which Donald Trump condoned.

The settlers’ leadership seems to be divided as the end of Trump’s term approaches. What started as a debate about the “deal of the century” has since become a fundamental dispute over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his policy towards stolen land.

Following the hugely symbolic visit to a settlement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the settlers are trying to put pressure on Netanyahu with a series of demands. They are unsure about Biden’s intentions, with concerns similar to those which dogged them throughout Obama’s two terms.

Their demands are unlikely to be accepted by Netanyahu or Trump. Most of the settlers realise that they actually have little or no influence over Netanyahu; more importantly, that they can’t unite behind a single demand, despite the efforts being made to benefit from the narrow window of opportunity before the change of president in Washington.

Nevertheless, the leaders of the Yesha (Settlers’) Council are promoting construction in one of the settlement outposts which includes people who have been living on the land for years, but have not yet been “recognised” by the Israeli government. These settlers do not have basic infrastructure, and need to be connected to established settlements, which is on the agenda. There is also the issue of the eviction of the Palestinians from Khan Al-Ahmar.

The settlers’ attention is focused on Washington as well as the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. They claim that this has been a year of disappointments under Netanyahu; the postponement of the annexation plan in the West Bank damaged their confidence in him.

The Yesha Council insists that the deal of the century should be binned and its leaders are angry at Netanyahu for not fulfilling his promise to go ahead with the annexation plan. In the middle of the dispute, we find other settlers sitting on the proverbial fence.

It is clear that Netanyahu wants to establish facts on the ground as well as set out his stall for creating “Greater Israel” and its monopoly over Jerusalem. It is more complex than Israelis realise, though. Look at the growth of illegal settlements in and around Jerusalem. Neighbourhoods such as Givat HaMatos, Beit Safafa in the north and the Har Homa settlement to the east are all set to grow. Israel wants to turn the latter into the first large settlement since the 1990s, with 3,000 new housing units.

A new wave of settlement construction and the demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank and Jerusalem precedes Biden’s January inauguration. Construction in the Givat HaMatos settlement weakens a “two-state” solution by cutting off the geographical contiguity between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It is no wonder that the international community regard this as having strategic implications for any future agreement; almost unanimous opposition among Israel’s close allies may prevent it from implementing this plan.

Even so, on 15 November, after years of delay, the Israel Land Administration invited tenders from contractors to build 1,257 settlement units in Givat HaMatos. Once contracts are signed, it will be the point of no return and construction will be inevitable. The deadline for submitting bids will be before or immediately after Biden’s inauguration on 20 January.

Givat HaMatos is not the only East Jerusalem settlement plan to be fast-tracked. Another plan emerged when Netanyahu asked for the go ahead from Pompeo to build a new settlement in Aterot, north of Jerusalem, again to create facts on the ground before Biden takes office.

Other plans exist to change the map of Jerusalem and crush the possibility of a two-state solution. In February, Netanyahu said for the first time that he would announce settlement tenders in the midst of an election campaign that would decide his political fate. These tenders were related to construction in the E1 area to create a complete buffer between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem and split the West Bank into two separate cantons. This will prevent the inclusion of Jerusalem and its hinterland in any future Palestinian state.

With another early Israeli election on the horizon in March next year or thereabouts, Netanyahu seems to be trying to build up support among the settlers. He has done it in the past, and is in a position to do it again.

The settlement projects overseen by Netanyahu symbolise his rejection of the two-state solution and will make its implementation impossible in reality. He seems to be sending a clear message to Joe Biden not to think about such a solution and that Jerusalem has been taken off the table and will stay off. Despite this, settlers will mourn their honeymoon under Trump as the Biden administration looms.

Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza