Israel’s defense minister said Wednesday that Israel should seek a deal with President-elect Donald Trump to allow expanded construction in major West Bank settlements while freezing building in isolated areas of the occupied territory — a proposal that, if accepted, would mark a sharp break from the policy under the Obama administration.
Avigdor Lieberman’s comments came as Israeli lawmakers are trying to gauge how Trump will address the issue of Israel’s West Bank settlement construction, which the U.S. and much of the international community view as illegal and an obstacle to peace.
Nationalist and pro-settler Israeli legislators have welcomed Trump’s election, seeing his rise as offering Israel a freer hand in settlement policies.
Lieberman spoke shortly after the Israeli parliament gave preliminary approval to a contentious bill that would retroactively legalize hundreds of homes in West Bank settlements that sit on private Palestinian land.
Although the bill has drawn heavy international criticism and faces tough legal questions, many hard-liners are also hopeful things will change after Trump takes office in January.
Under President Barack Obama, settlement construction became a major flashpoint between Israel and its most important ally.
The Palestinians want the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war — for their future state. Nearly 600,000 Jewish settlers now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Israel has argued that groupings of settlements known as “blocs” — where a majority of settlers live — should remain in Israel under any peace deal with the Palestinians, with other smaller settlements deeper in the West Bank, including the one where Lieberman lives, relinquished.
“If we get permission by the administration” to expand building in the settlement blocs, “we have to grab it with both hands,” said Lieberman, who as defense minister also helps oversee settlement policy.
His comments could rankle pro-settler lawmakers in the governing coalition, who oppose limits on Jewish construction in the West Bank.
During his campaign, Trump has appeared to be more sympathetic to Israel than the Palestinians, which has energized nationalist Israelis. He has vowed not to impose any solutions on Israel and promised to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a step that would undercut the Palestinian claims to the eastern part of the city.
The unpredictable Trump also raised some concerns in Israel during the election campaign by suggesting he would stay “neutral” on the conflict and that Israel should repay the billions of dollars of military aid it receives from the United States.
Trump’s campaign platform made no mention of a Palestinian state, and many of his close advisers hold hawkish, pro-Israel views. Since being elected, he has indicated interest in brokering a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The pro-settlement nationalists that dominate Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition notched a victory with Wednesday’s parliament vote on the settlement bill.
The proposed bill was sparked by a 2014 order from Israel’s Supreme Court to evacuate the illegally built settlement outpost of Amona by Dec. 25. The court set the deadline after determining the outpost was built in the mid-1990s on private Palestinian land.
The legislation would retroactively legalize Amona and dozens of other outposts, as well as neighborhoods in existing settlements found to have been built on private Palestinian land.
In all, an estimated 2,500 homes would be affected, while Palestinian landowners would be eligible for compensation.
Members of the Jewish Home, a nationalist party affiliated with the settler movement, sponsored the legislation. They say the affected residents have lived in these homes for years, sometimes decades, and should not be uprooted.
“A nation cannot be an occupier in its own land,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home said ahead of the vote, berating Israel’s opposition parties for standing against the draft bill.
Opponents say the bill is illegal and is a dangerous attempt to override the nation’s highest court. Israel’s attorney general, who was appointed by Netanyahu, has said he will not be able to defend it in court.
“Never in the history of the state of Israel, never, did the Knesset vote totally against the state’s laws, the rule of law and international law,” said opposition leader Isaac Herzog. “This is a law that recognizes robbery and theft.”
The bill still must pass three more votes in parliament — meaning it could be watered down or frozen in various committees.
The U.S. State Department said this week that it was “deeply concerned” about the legislation. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau called it an “unprecedented” step that would break from previous Israeli policies.
“This legislation would be a dramatic advancement of the settlement enterprise, which is already gravely endangering the prospects for a two-state solution,” she said.
Egypt, a key Arab ally of Israel, has also condemned the legislation.
SOURCE: The Associated Press