Israeli officials double down on settlement construction, rebuke US criticism

Two ultranationalist Israeli Cabinet ministers on Tuesday defiantly dismissed a growing chorus of global condemnation of new Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, instead promising to double down and legalize dozens of wildcat outposts in the occupied territory.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir reaffirmed their commitment to expand Israeli authority in the lands that the Palestinians seek for a future state. Their comments came after the United States expressed opposition to the move and as four European countries added their criticism.

Smotrich, a religious settler, said he and his allies in the government — the most right-wing in Israel’s history — remain “committed to removing completely the restrictions on building in Judea and Samaria,” referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.

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“Disagreements are allowed, even between friends,” he added.

Ben-Gvir, who also lives in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, urged the U.S. and Europe to “stop being worried.”

“The Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel,” he said emphatically. “Nine settlements is nice. But it’s still not enough. We want many more.”

Two Israeli Cabinet members issued a rebuttal to American criticism of settlement construction in the West Bank.

Two Israeli Cabinet members issued a rebuttal to American criticism of settlement construction in the West Bank. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

On Tuesday, some of Europe’s top diplomats joined the U.S. in censuring Israel over its plans to build 10,000 new homes in existing settlements in the West Bank and retroactively legalize nine outposts. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet announced the measure on Sunday, following a surge in violence in Jerusalem.

We “are deeply troubled by the Israeli government’s announcement,” read the joint statement from the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the U.S. “We strongly oppose these unilateral actions which will only serve to exacerbate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Israel’s Arab neighbors Jordan and Egypt, as well as Saudi Arabia and Norway, similarly expressed grave concern and strong opposition to the new settlement plans.

Still, there was no mention of potential consequences. Despite years of accumulated frustration and escalating rhetoric over Israel’s fast-expanding settlements that threaten the realization of the two-state solution that has been a goal of the peace process for years, the U.S. and European Union have avoided taking serious action.

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Israel’s new government could nonetheless test the country’s closest ties. In a contentious coalition deal, Netanyahu promised Smotrich authority over the defense body responsible for planning for both settlements and Palestinian construction in parts of the West Bank where Israel maintains civilian control.

Once he receives those powers, Smotrich has vowed to “normalize” life for more than 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, erasing the differences between living in a settlement and within Israel’s internationally recognized border and effectively annexing West Bank territory. Such a move would draw widespread backlash.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. Most of the international community considers Israeli settlements illegal and an obstacle to peace. Some 700,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

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Ultranationalists who oppose Palestinian statehood comprise a majority of Israel’s new government, which has declared settlement construction a top priority.

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