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Coalition party vows settlement building will continue, despite US request for pause

The coalition’s far-right Religious Zionism party insisted that West Bank settlement construction will continue, after a Tuesday report revealed that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders during meetings last week to “pause” such measures in an effort to restore calm.

“There will be no freeze on construction in Judea and Samaria. Period,” read a statement from Religious Zionism, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.

“There will be no harm to the Israeli deterrence against terrorists. Period. There will be no further illegal construction or takeover of open lands by Arabs. Period,” the party added.

Hours earlier, the Axios news site reported that Blinken asked each side to “pause” major policies that the other opposes in order to quash a recent surge in violence. For Israel, this would mean halting settlement construction, home demolitions and evictions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. For the Palestinian Authority, it would mean ceasing its initiatives against Israel at international forums such as the UN.

Two officials familiar with the matter confirmed the report, while clarifying that the US has long opposed these policies and has urged the sides to avoid them. The latest proposal “wasn’t particularly new or dramatic,” an Israeli official said.

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Responding to the statement from Religious Zionism, opposition leader Yair Lapid tweeted, “Just to be clear: the Americans did not ask for any construction freeze in the [West Bank], just standard measures that they always request. Smotrich and Ben Gvir invented a freeze that does not exist so that they could claim that they firmly refused.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem on January 30, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Moreover, PA President Mahmoud Abbas offered something nearly identical in his meeting with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan last month, when the former said he was prepared to halt measures against Israel at the UN and other international bodies for six months if Israel ceased “unilateral moves” in the West Bank for that same period of time, a Palestinian official said.

The term “unilateral moves” is often used by the PA to describe steps such as settlement expansion, settler violence, the establishment of outposts, evictions, home demolitions, land expropriation and IDF incursions into the West Bank’s Area A, which the Oslo Accords places under Ramallah’s full control.

This offer too would likely be a non-starter for the new Israeli government, which was established with commitments to expand Israeli presence in the West Bank. And while Abbas may have proposed a temporary halt to targeting Israel at global forums, the PA’s cases at the International Criminal Court and the UN’s International Court of Justice do not appear reversible at this stage.

Responding to the request by Blinken a week later, Israeli officials said they would not be able to pause settlement construction completely but could take steps to minimize it, Axios reported.

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a stay on the massive demolition of an entire Palestinian apartment building in East Jerusalem that had been pushed by far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Tuesday, January 31, 2023. (Ronaldo Schemidt/Pool via AP)

Last week, the government said it would hold off on demolishing the Palestinian village of Khan al-Ahmar for an additional four months, despite longstanding pledges by many of its members to raze the hamlet.

Both steps were taken following pressure from the US and other Western governments who warned against displacing Palestinians.

On the other hand, Israel’s cabinet on Sunday approved the creation of a new body to support unauthorized settlement, as part of its promise to recognize a group of about 70 currently illegal West Bank settlements.

Outpost legalization has been one of the major steps that the Biden administration has adamantly warned Israel against implementing, arguing that such moves damage prospects for a two-state solution.

The US has intensified its engagement with Israeli and Palestinian leaders amid rising violence beyond the Green Line.

Late last month, the IDF conducted a raid in the northern West Bank city of Jenin during which nine Palestinians were killed, including one civilian. Israel has defended the operation as a necessary anti-terror measure. The PA responded by announcing the severing of its security coordination with the IDF (though Abbas later told Burns ties were only partially cut).

A day later, a Palestinian terrorist opened fire outside a synagogue in East Jerusalem, killing seven Israelis.

The IDF has pressed on with an anti-terror campaign to deal with a series of attacks that left 31 people in Israel dead in 2022, and seven more in an attack last month. The military’s operation has netted more than 2,500 arrests in near-nightly raids. It also left 171 Palestinians dead in 2022, and another 41 since the beginning of the year — many of them carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces, though some were uninvolved civilians.