After settlement restrictions, Israeli settlers voice lowered expectations for Trump era

An Israeli settler argues with police officers evacuating the West Bank outpost of Amona, Feb. 1, 2107. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Andrew Tobin

JERUSALEM (JTA) – In response to new curbs on West Bank construction, Israeli settlement supporters hoped for the best and expected the worst, tempering their initial euphoria at U.S. President Donald Trump’s election.

Pro-settlement leaders who advocate Jewish control of the entire West Bank went as far as to cautiously welcome the government’s announcement Thursday that construction would be largely restricted to developed areas of existing Jewish communities in the West Bank. Others hoped the restrictions did not amount to a freeze on settlement building.

“You need to understand that people built up an expectation that there would be a new president, the old era would end, and we’d be able to do whatever we want,” Yesha Council foreign envoy Oded Revivi told JTA on Sunday. “All of a sudden, reality doesn’t look like our expectations.”

Much of the Israeli right initially anticipated Trump would give Israel a freer hand in the West Bank than had his predecessor, Barack Obama. But since being elected, Trump has backed off his pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and made moves toward the final status agreement he has said he wants to broker between Israel and the Palestinians.

Having welcomed Trump’s election in January by announcing: “The era of a Palestinian state is over,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett expressed cautious optimism Sunday at the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “The arrangement is a fitting one, but the proof will be in the pudding,” Bennett said, according to the Walla news website.

They were the first comments by Bennett, the head of the fiercely pro-settlement Jewish Home party, since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday announced the new settlement policy in a meeting of the security cabinet. Netanyahu told his top ministers that the policy was a goodwill gesture to Trump, who last month said settlement expansion “may not be helpful” in achieving peace and asked Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements a little bit.”

“This is a very friendly administration and we need to be considerate of the president’s requests,” Netanyahu said, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The policy Netanyahu laid out was that settlement construction would be limited to previously developed areas of the West Bank. But where  security or topography prevented this, new homes would be built as close as possible to the developed areas. Israel would not allow the creation of any new illegal outposts, he said.

Hours earlier, the security cabinet decided to establish the first entirely new settlement in two decades for families evicted last month from Amona, an illegal West Bank outpost. That settlement will not be affected by the policy.

Most of the world considers all Israeli construction in the territories it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War illegal. But Israel disputes this and allows government authorized settlements on land not demonstrably owned by Palestinians. While Israel stopped establishing new settlements in the early 1990s, it has retroactively approved outposts and let existing settlements expand.

On Friday, Revivi put a positive spin on the policy, saying the Yesha Council, which is the main umbrella group for the settlements, would keep an eye on the West Bank – which he referred to by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria – to make sure “these plans come to fruition.”

“The YESHA Council welcomes the cabinet decision to support new building projects across Judea and Samaria, in addition to the establishment of a new town for the former residents of Amona,” he said. “However, the true test will be the implementation of these plans and their manifestation as actual bricks and mortar on the ground. We will be monitoring the government very closely to see that these plans come to fruition, enabling a new era of building throughout our ancestral homeland.”

Shlomo Brom, the head researcher on Israeli-Palestinian relations at the Institute for National Security Studies, said that if the new policy were strictly enforced, it would dramatically reduce West Bank construction. The developed areas of the West Bank are already crowded, he said, leaving little room for growth. But Brom said many settlers seemed to be betting the policy would be interpreted with flexibility, which could allow the settlements to gradually expand indefinitely. Noting that his think tank in January urged Israel to limit settlement construction to the major settlement blocs, he said this policy “is not close” to that.

Meanwhile, several right-wing lawmakers worried that the restrictions amounted to a suspension of settlement building. Yehudah Glick, a Knesset member in the ruling Likud party who lives in a settlement, held out hope in a tweet Friday that this was not the case.

“I hope, in contrast to the commentators, that the government did not decide on a freeze on settlement construction,” he said. “We cannot accept this. Construction in Judea and Samaria is important for those who want peace.”

Bezalel Smotrich, an often inflammatory Jewish Home party lawmaker who also lives in a settlement, suggested Israel’s political right had lowered its expectations too far.

“This morning, on my [news feed] and according to the commentators — the right wing claims that the cabinet decided yesterday on construction [in the West Bank], the left claims that there is a freeze,” Bezalel Smotrich, an often inflammatory Jewish Home lawmaker who lives in a West Bank settlement, tweeted Friday. “Unfortunately this time the commentators on the left are correct. The right is willfully blinded.”

Revivi, who is also the mayor of the settlement Efrat, said settlers have been most disappointed by Netanyahu. The prime minister blamed former U.S. President Barack Obama for the lack of construction in the West Bank for years, he said, but that is harder to do with Trump, who is seen as more sympathetic to Israel. Especially after the evacuation of Amona, he said, “people feel that promises are made but not really fulfilled.”

Judy Simon, the former tourism coordinator for the settlement Beit El and a teacher there, said she has lost faith in the government’s commitment to the settlement enterprise since Trump took office.

“Here we have most pro-Israel government we’ve had [in Washington] in a decade, some say decades, and yet building is still being limited. What that says to me is the king has no clothes,” she told JTA Sunday. “But God promised this is our land forever, and God never reneges on his promises, unlike some politicians.”