Secretary of State Tony Blinken protested the decision to approve 3,000 new housing units in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank during a tense phone call on Tuesday with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, three Israeli officials tell me.
Why it matters: This is the first time new construction in the settlements has been approved since President Biden assumed office, and the Biden administration had been privately pressing the Israeli government not to proceed.
“The U.S. gave us a yellow card.”
— Senior Israeli official on the “very difficult” call between Gantz and Blinken.
The backstory: Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had hoped a Ministry of Defense committee would approve the new housing units before he visited Washington in August. But that didn’t happen, and then Biden personally pressed him to show restraint on the settlements issue.
- That complicated matters and contributed to a two-month delay. But then last week, the Ministry of Defense announced the committee would convene to approve even more housing units than had previously been planned.
- The top U.S. diplomat in Jerusalem, Michael Ratney, called Bennett’s foreign policy adviser Shimrit Meir to protest the move, in a call the sources described as “difficult.”
Behind the scenes: The U.S. pressure escalated on Tuesday when Blinken called Gantz and told him both the number of housing units and their locations deep inside the West Bank were “unacceptable,” according to the Israeli officials.
- Blinken asked Gantz to take the U.S. position on settlements more into consideration in the future.
- Gantz told Blinken he understands the Biden administration’s concerns and had decreased the number of building plans up for approval as much as he could.
- He also pointed out that he had approved plans for 1,300 new housing units for Palestinians in the Israeli-controlled West Bank, something that hadn’t happened in over a decade.
Gantz also told Blinken that he’d been criticized by his political rivals for meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and for granting legal status to 4,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank, adding “I am planning to take more such steps soon,” according to one Israeli official.
- Gantz told Blinken that, the settlements dispute notwithstanding, the new Israeli government’s objective was to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and improve the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, the Israeli officials said.
- Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh on Sunday called on the U.S. and international community to “confront the fait accompli being systematically imposed by Israel.”
Between the lines: The latest flare-up over the settlements began in the same week that Gantz signed an order to designate six Palestinian NGO’s as terrorist organizations, which also sparked criticism from the State Department.
- An Israeli delegation is expected to hold talks with State Department officials later this week on the designations.
What’s next: After the Israeli government passes its budget next week, and thus ensures its short-term political survival, the Biden administration is expected to resume discussions over reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem — another very contentious issue.
The bottom line: Senior Israeli officials admit that the U.S. position on settlements was tougher than they had expected, but note that the criticism is coming mainly from the State Department, with the White House not weighing in publicly for now.
- “We shouldn’t waste the goodwill we get from this administration,” one senior Israeli official said.