Is­rael breaks ground on West Bank set­tle­ment

The move comes just be­fore Jared Kush­ner’s visit to join talks on the peace process.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Joshua Mit­nick Mit­nick is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

TEL AVIV — Is­raeli jack­ham­mers broke ground on a new Jewish set­tle­ment in the West Bank on Tues­day, just one day be­fore Pres­i­dent Trump’s ad­vi­sor Jared Kush­ner joins talks in Jerusalem and Ra­mal­lah aimed at re­viv­ing the Is­raeliPales­tinian peace process.

Kush­ner’s ar­rival to par­tic­i­pate in a round of shut­tle diplo­macy is seen in the re­gion as a sign that Trump is se­ri­ous about ad­vanc­ing an “ul­ti­mate” agree­ment be­tween the sides, even though ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have yet to re­veal a plan for ne­go­ti­a­tions.

In an ap­par­ent bid to calm his core pro-set­tler con­stituency ahead of the peace talks, Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu tweeted a pic­ture of trac­tors at work on a rocky slope in the West Bank. The new set­tle­ment, dubbed Amichai, marks the first time that an Is­raeli gov­ern­ment has de­cided to build a new town in the West Bank since the mid-1990s.

“Af­ter dozens of years, I have the honor of be­ing a prime min­is­ter who builds a new set­tle­ment in Judea and Sa­maria,” Ne­tanyahu wrote in the tweet, re­fer­ring to the West Bank by its bib­li­cal names. In a fol­low-up tweet, he wrote, “There has never been and there will never be a bet­ter gov­ern­ment for set­tle­ments than this gov­ern­ment.”

A spokesman for Pales­tinian Author­ity Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas de­nounced the Is­raeli prime min­is­ter’s an­nounce­ment as “a se­ri­ous es­ca­la­tion” and “an at­tempt to thwart the ef­forts of the U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion and U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.”

In a state­ment, spokesman Nabil abu Ru­daineh said the tim­ing of the an­nounce­ment “in­di­cates that Is­rael is not in­ter­ested in U.S. ef­forts.”

In prepa­ra­tion for the talks, Trump’s point per­son, Ja­son Green­blatt, held a round of meet­ings with Is­raeli and Pales­tinian of­fi­cials on Tues­day, in­clud­ing Ne­tanyahu and his long­time ne­go­ti­a­tions en­voy, at­tor­ney Isaac Mol­cho.

“He shared his ex­pe­ri­ence in how to build peace,” Green­blatt tweeted, re­fer­ring to his meeting with Mol­cho.

The ar­rival of Kush­ner, whom the pres­i­dent has tapped to over­see Is­raeliPales­tinian peace ef­forts, comes one month af­ter Trump vis­ited Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Beth­le­hem for meet­ings with Ne­tanyahu and Ab­bas.

“It’s send­ing a sig­nal to the two par­ties, ‘Get se­ri­ous, we are in it for real, and we’re not af­fected by the back­ground noises in Wash­ing­ton,’ ” said Nim­rod Novik, who served as an ad­vi­sor to the late Is­raeli leader Shi­mon Peres. “‘You told your pres­i­dent that you are se­ri­ous about the process, now we need con­crete ev­i­dence of that to get the process rolling.’ ”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has been press­ing both Is­raeli and Pales­tinian lead­ers to make good­will ges­tures to build mo­men­tum for talks: Wash­ing­ton has pressed Is­rael to take steps to boost the Pales­tinian econ­omy and ease up on set­tle­ment ex­pan­sion; it has called on Ab­bas to halt gov­ern­ment pay­ments to Pales­tini­ans in­volved in at­tacks against Is­rael.

“The time is com­ing for [Trump] and his ad­min­is­tra­tion to put forth their own ideas, and per­haps pro­pose some prin­ci­ples to guide ne­go­ti­a­tions on fi­nal sta­tus,” said Daniel Shapiro, a for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Is­rael, in a con­fer­ence call with re­porters.

“The pres­i­dent is at the point of max­i­mum lever­age right now. It’s dif­fi­cult for any party in the re­gion to say ‘no’ to him…. Jared Kush­ner’s ar­rival and in­volve­ment now raises those stakes for ev­ery­one. It es­sen­tially dares each of the par­ties to say ‘no.’ And my guess is they won’t.”

Is­rael’s con­tin­ued build­ing of Jewish set­tle­ments in the oc­cu­pied West Bank was a bone of con­tention with the U.S. un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, and spurred pub­lic crit­i­cism from Wash­ing­ton. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, in con­trast, has cho­sen not to crit­i­cize set­tle­ment ac­tiv­ity in pub­lic.

The new set­tle­ment that Ne­tanyahu boasted about on Tues­day was ap­proved as a con­ces­sion for a group of Is­raelis who were evicted from the Amona hill­top out­post be­cause the Is­raeli Supreme Court ruled that it was built on pri­vately owned Pales­tinian lands. Since Trump’s elec­tion, the Is­raeli prime min­is­ter has been un­der pres­sure from set­tle­ment lead­ers to step up build­ing in the West Bank.

In a re­port to the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil on Tues­day, the U.N.’s spe­cial co­or­di­na­tor for the Mid­dle East peace process, Nick­o­lay Mlade­nov, said the new set­tle­ment “would fur­ther sever the ter­ri­tory con­ti­gu­ity of a fu­ture Pales­tinian state, so­lid­i­fy­ing a line of set­tle­ments di­vid­ing the north­ern and central West Bank.”

The U.N. co­or­di­na­tor said in his re­port that there had been a “sub­stan­tial” in­crease in set­tle­ment plan­ning and build­ing an­nounce­ments by the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment in the last three months. Mean­while, the Is­raeli statis­tics bu­reau on Mon­day re­ported a 70% in­crease in hous­ing starts in the West Bank set­tle­ments over the 12-month pe­riod that ended March 31 com­pared with the same pe­riod a year be­fore.

Though the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment has yet to ap­prove a devel­op­ment plan to build houses for the new set­tle­ment, it took the un­usual step of be­gin­ning to pre­pare the phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture for the con­struc­tion, said a spokes­woman for Peace Now, an Is­raeli group that op­poses the set­tle­ments.

“This is yet another bend­ing of the laws that the gov­ern­ment is do­ing in or­der to sat­isfy the set­tlers’ de­mands,” wrote Hagit Ofran. “It is un­prece­dented.”

Ni­cholas Kamm AFP/Getty Im­ages

PRES­I­DENT Trump has tapped Jared Kush­ner to over­see Is­raeliPales­tinian peace ef­forts.

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