Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank drew international condemnation Saturday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considered building about 600 more homes in an area known as E1, which could partition the West Bank in two and threaten Israel’s shaky relationship with its key ally the United States.
In a statement issued after Saturday’s announcement, US President Donald Trump backed the effort by opponents of the Jewish settlements, including Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, to limit construction and said the White House still supports a final-status peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
“I have instructed my Administration to closely monitor developments in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and reiterate our opposition to settlements, including east Jerusalem, which is a sensitive area that must be the subject of direct negotiations between the two parties,” Trump said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded on Saturday, saying that “over the years” settlements had brought Israel and the Palestinians closer together, Israeli news sites reported. In the statement, he stressed the need to continue construction in the West Bank “even at great cost” to Israel.
Earlier Saturday, the Palestinian Authority said the plan presented by the Israeli cabinet would break the ground for a dramatic expansion of settlements in the territory Palestinians claim for their future state.
“If Netanyahu wanted to maintain good relations with the U.S., he should use this opportunity to replace [settlement] construction with peace, not settlement expansion,” Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told reporters in Ramallah.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had ordered a halt to contacts with Israel after it voted last week in favor of US congressional legislation that would allow penalties to be imposed on any international organization seeking to cut off funding to the settlements, Reuters reported. He said his decision was meant to send a message to Netanyahu.
Al-Maliki said Abbas’s decision was part of a larger campaign to pressure Israel into freezing settlement construction and called it a measure of protest against Netanyahu. He said Abbas would continue to support U.S. policies toward Israel until there was a comprehensive settlement freeze.
This was the first time the Israeli cabinet has approved housing construction in E1, an area located about 15 miles (25 kilometers) from Jerusalem and includes some 70 percent of the settlements existing in the West Bank. A construction freeze there would prevent any construction from the West Bank to east Jerusalem, where roughly 300,000 Palestinians live.
Israel has attempted to expand the settlements in recent years in an effort to cement a separate state for the Palestinians. But most observers believe that such an expansion in the E1 area, if it occurred, would lead to the total dismantling of the settlements in the West Bank.
The Washington Post contributed to this report.