Israeli settlement activity appears up in Trump era

Josef Federman
Associated Press

Jerusalem — With little resistance from a friendly White House, Israel has launched a new settlement push in the West Bank since President Donald Trump took office, laying the groundwork for what could be the largest construction binge in years, according to data obtained by the Associated Press.

The figures, gathered from official government sources by the anti-settlement monitoring group Peace Now, show an increase in building in 2018 and a sharp spike in planning for future construction.

This trend, highlighted last week when an Israeli committee advanced plans for thousands more settlement homes on war-won lands, has deepened Palestinian mistrust of the Trump administration as it says it is preparing to roll out a Mideast peace plan. Each new settlement expansion further diminishes the chances of setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Both supporters and opponents of settlements confirm a change in atmosphere since early 2017, when Trump took over from Barack Obama, whose administration had tried to rein in construction.

“The feeling of the (Israeli) government is everything is allowed, that the time to do things is now because the (U.S.) administration is the most pro-settlement you can ever have,” said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch program.

Peace Now uses several measurements of settlement activity. These include “plans,” or the bureaucratic stages of preparing a project, including initial proposals; “tenders,” when bids are solicited from contractors to do large projects; and “construction starts,” when the building actually begins.

Each of these figures tells a different story. While construction starts give a snapshot of the current level of settlement activity, they reflect decisions made years ago. In contrast, the planning and tender stages are seen as forward-looking indicators of a government’s intentions.

The data compiled by Peace Now showed a drop in construction starts during Trump’s first year in office, to 1,643 units in 2017 from 3,066 units the previous year. This drop appears to reflect the lingering effect of reduced planning during the final two years of the Obama administration.

But the data for the first nine months of 2018 indicate the beginning of a Trump effect, with construction starts 20 percent higher than the same period a year earlier.

These trends are even more evident when looking at the planning process. In 2017, plans were advanced to build 6,712 new settlement homes, roughly 2.5 times the 2016 level.

In 2018, plans for an additional 5,618 units were advanced, nearly half of which were processed last week alone.

A United Nations spokesman reiterated in response to a question on the topic at a Wednesday news briefing that the world body has called for a halt to all settlement activity. A 2016 U.N. Security Council resolution condemned them as a “flagrant violation” of international law.

The biggest surge in settlement activity during the Trump era is in tenders — large projects that are ready to be launched.

“There’s definitely a change of atmosphere. There’s definitely a change of winds,” said Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat, a major settlement near Jerusalem, and the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha settlement council.

Revivi said that Obama pressured Israel into greatly curtailing settlement activity. Now, he said, Israel is trying to make up for lost time.