Debating 98 New Homes: The US-Israel Settlement Tensions
JNS.org — Israel’s newly approved plan to build 98 homes in the Shiloh Valley, in northern Samaria, has renewed longstanding tensions between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issue of West Bank settlement construction.
Both the US State Department and the White House have issued statements censuring the plan, continuing the pattern in which condemnation emerges whenever Israel announces plans to build in territories captured from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War. These territories lie at the center of a 50-year land dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.
The Israeli government intends to construct these new West Bank homes to replace some 40 residences standing on the nearby hilltop of Amona, a few miles south of the Shiloh valley, that, as ordered by Israel’s Supreme Court, must be demolished before the year’s end.
“From Israel’s perspective, the Netanyahu government is trying to resolve a problem of being under pressure to dismantle what, according to Israeli law, is an illegal settlement, and it is trying to find a solution for those people in another settlement,” said Professor Jonathan Rynhold, a senior lecturer at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
Many within Israel’s government coalition are against the demolition in Amona, where, in 2006, protesters violently clashed with police during the demolition of nine homes.
“The Netanyahu government is stuck between the White House and his right-wing coalition partners,” Rynhold told JNS.org.
US and Israeli officials fire barbs
State Department spokesman Mark Toner was the first to condemn Israel’s plans, saying last Wednesday that it, “contradicts previous public statements by the government of Israel that it had no intention of creating new settlements. And this settlement’s location deep in the West Bank, far closer to Jordan than Israel, would link a string of outposts that effectively divide the West Bank and make the possibility of a viable Palestinian state more remote.”
Soon after, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest called into question the health of the friendship between the two strategic allies. “We had public assurances from the Israeli government that contradict this new announcement — so when you talk about how friends treat each other, this is also a source of concern,” Earnest said.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry shot back with a statement claiming, “The 98 housing units approved in Shiloh do not constitute a ‘new settlement.’ This housing will be built on state land in the existing settlement of Shiloh and will not change its municipal boundary or geographic footprint.”
The statement continued, “The real obstacle to peace is not the settlements — a final status issue that can and must be resolved in negotiations between the parties — but the persistent Palestinian rejection of a Jewish state in any boundaries.”
The spat between Israel and the US on settlements, according to Rynhold, “reflects the longstanding disagreement between the Israeli right and the United States all the way back to 1967.”
On Thursday, Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan confirmed on Israel’s Kol Chai radio that Netanyahu told Obama that no new settlements would be established throughout the duration of a newly-signed $38 billion military aid package to Israel, but claimed that the buildings would not constitute a new settlement.
In a strongly worded rebuttal to the White House and the State Department, Ben-Dahan said, the pledge “does not make Israel a hostage of the United States.”
Who has legal and moral claims to the West Bank?
According to Oded Revivi, chief foreign envoy of the Council of Judea and Samaria (YESHA), “there should be no contention about building within the municipal boundaries of the existing community of Shiloh. The Jewish connection to ancient Shiloh goes back thousands of years. It was the first capital of the ancient Jewish Kingdom of Israel and site of the Holy Tabernacle for 369 years.”
“No other nation has more of a legal, biblical or historical right to Shiloh,” Revivi told JNS.org.
Yet the White House and members of Israel’s opposition disagree. In previous negotiation attempts, Left-wing Israeli governments have offered the land to the Palestinians.
Gilad Grossman, a spokesman for the nongovernmental organization Yesh Din, which filed the legal claim in Israel’s Supreme Court against the houses in Amona, insisted that the planned homes constitute a new settlement.
“Our position is that all settlements and outposts are illegal,” Grossman told JNS.org. “Building new ones is against international law.” Yet, Grossman noted, the plans need to go through additional approvals before being built.
“There are many steps that the plan needs to go through before it is fully approved,” he explained. “We have to see now if the new plans abide by existing Israeli laws.”
Meanwhile, the debate on the legitimacy of settlements rages on both within Israel, as well as between Israel and the US. Tensions between the strategic allies are likely to continue through the remaining months of the Obama presidency.
According to Revivi, the longtime mayor of Efrat, one of Israel’s largest settlements, “Our communities were built on strong moral and legal ground, and the law isn’t as simple as suggested by the State Department.”