By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered construction plans advanced on Monday for some 800 Jewish settler homes in the occupied West Bank, anchoring the projects in the final days of the pro-settlement Trump administration.
Palestinians condemned such construction as illegal. The timing of the move appeared to be an attempt to set Israel’s blueprint in indelible ink.
Moving ahead with the projects could help shore up support for Netanyahu from settlers and their backers in a March 23 election, Israel’s fourth in two years, in which the conservative leader faces new challenges from the right.
An announcement by Netanyahu’s office said about 800 homes would be built in the settlements of Beit El and Givat Zeev, north of Jerusalem, and in Tal Menashe, Rehelim, Shavei Shomron, Barkan and Karnei Shomron in the northern West Bank. It gave no starting date for construction.
The Trump administration has effectively backed Israel’s right to build West Bank settlements by abandoning a long-held U.S. position that they break international law. Trump has also delighted Israeli leaders and angered Palestinians by recognizing contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there.
Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said Netanyahu wants the settlement move “to be set in stone before the Biden administration comes into office, and maybe changes Israeli-American tacit understandings on settlements that existed under Trump.”
Netanyahu also wants to tell voters he is “the only leader who can stand up to Biden and make sure he doesn’t dictate our policy in the (Palestinian) territories,” Talshir said.
Palestinians seek to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, all land captured by Israel in a 1967 war.
Most countries view Israeli settlements as violating international law. Israel disputes this, citing historical, political and biblical links to the West Bank, where more than 440,000 Israeli settlers now live among 3 million Palestinians who have limited self rule under Israeli occupation.
As vice president under Barack Obama, Biden was put in an uncomfortable position during a visit to Israel in 2010 when Israel announced plans for a settlement in a West Bank area annexed to Jerusalem. Arriving 90 minutes late for dinner with Netanyahu, Biden condemned the decision as undermining U.S.-Israeli trust.
(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub, Ali Sawafta and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Peter Graff)