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Ministers deny increased US pressure on Bennett to freeze settlements

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Ministers deny increased US pressure on Bennett to freeze settlements

Cabinet ministers and officials close to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett denied that he was facing greater pressure from the Biden administration to freeze construction in Judea and Samaria, though Washington has consistently opposed settlement activity.

The Biden administration mentions its support for a two-state solution and opposition to unilateral steps – often specifying that includes settlement activity – nearly every time its representatives speak about Israel,

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Chargé d’Affaires Michael Ratney regularly speaks with Bennett’s diplomatic adviser Shimrit Meir, and has brought up concerns about settlements, multiple sources said.

In addition, the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria has yet to convene to advance any significant settler building project. It last met just before US President Joe Biden took office on January 20, when Benjamin Netanyahu was Prime Minister.

The Council had initially been scheduled to convene in August to advance plans for 2223 settler homes, but that meeting was canceled due to a strike and has not been rescheduled. 

 US President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan, a package of economic relief measures to respond to the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, inside the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US, March 11, 2021.  (credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER) US President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan, a package of economic relief measures to respond to the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, inside the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US, March 11, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)

Following a report on Army Radio on Wednesday that Bennett told the Security Cabinet that he was “surprised” by the level of pressure over settlements from the US, numerous cabinet ministers said, on condition of anonymity, that they had not felt or heard about increased pressure.

Housing and Construction Minister Ze’ev Elkin said on Army Radio that there is “no connection between the report and what happened in reality.”

“We know how to behave,” Elkin added. “It’s not anything we haven’t seen in previous governments.”

Sources close to Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who was in Washington last week, made similar remarks while saying the Biden administration has made its position clear.

“They don’t want to build in E1 or Givat Hamatos, but this isn’t what pressure looks like,” a senior diplomatic source said.

Bennett has repeatedly stated that he has no intention of freezing Jewish buildings in Judea and Samaria and that he intends to continue to advance plans for new construction.

The prime minister is aware that when new building plans in the West Bank are made public, they will likely cause friction with the Biden administration, a source close to Bennett said. However, he still intends to allow for “a conservative, but the consistent pace of construction.”

When it comes to construction, the source added Bennett plans to focus more on the Golan Heights, which the US recognizes as sovereign Israeli territory. Earlier this month, Bennett announced a plan to quadruple the population in the Golan.

Elkin said on Army Radio that he plans to double the size of the Jordan Valley’s population. He argued that expansion in that part of the West Bank was a “consensus” in Israel, though Meretz and Ra’am oppose any Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria, and Labor opposes building outside the blocs.

Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan went to Washington this week to drum up opposition in Congress to any Biden administration attempt to impose a settlement freeze on Israel.

“We will not allow for a construction freeze in Judea and Samaria,” Dagan told the media.

“Not in this government and not in any other government,” he emphasized.

Dagan left for Washington at the start of the week amid consistent reports of Biden administration pressure on Bennett to freeze settlement activity.

Dagan is a member of the largest opposition party, the Likud, led by Netanyahu. He warned Bennett not to blame US pressure for a freeze. 

“The responsibility for construction in Judea and Samaria is solely in the hands of the Israeli government” led by Bennett, Dagan said.

There is support among US politicians for Jewish building in Judea and Samaria, Dagan said, adding that he had found that the politicians he met with were very supportive and receptive.

“The purpose of the meetings is to create a coalition of partners for the State of Israel and the settlement in Judea and Samaria who will fight together to build and strengthen” those communities, he said. 

Dagan’s office said that the settler leader has met with some 20 members of the House and the Senate. This includes Republican representative Robert Good of Virginia, Chris Smith of New Jersey, Andy Barr of Kentucky, Charles Fleischmann of Tennessee, Lee Zeldin of New York and Beth Van-Dwayne of Texas.

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Ministers deny increased US pressure on Bennett to freeze settlements