Israel has indicated it will pursue a unilateral policy of largely unconstrained settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories, as it announced the first new settlement in two decades.
While Israel’s new settlement construction guidelines were presented as evidence of restraint and a “goodwill gesture” to the administration of US President Donald Trump – who has asked Israel to slow construction – the details seem to indicate the opposite.
Under the arrangements outlined on Thursday night by the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel plans to build within the boundaries of existing settlements adjacent to them, and when that is “not possible”, close to those blocs.
The only limit would involve so-called illegal outposts built by hardline settlers without permission.
The disclosure of the guidelines comes after the apparent failure of Israel and US officials to agree a road map for what settlement construction would be acceptable to the Trump administration.
The details emerged on Friday morning after the announcement on Thursday of a new settlement near Nablus – the first in almost two decades – to rehouse illegal Jewish settlers from the Amona outpost, which was demolished on the instruction of an Israeli court.
In a statement on Friday, Netanyahu said: “Out of consideration to President Donald Trump’s position, Israel will take necessary steps to minimise the expansion of developed area beyond the footprint of existing settlements in Judea and Samaria [the occupied Palestinian territories] and exhibit considerable restriction, to allow the progression of the peace process.
“Israel will build within the existing developed area, as much as possible.
In areas where this is not possible, Israel will build along the existing development line.
“In areas where neither of these possibilities are feasible, due to legal, security, topographical or additional concerns, Israel will allow building in proximity as close as possible to the existing development line.”
The guidelines go beyond the agreement between the late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and George W Bush for settlement construction and far beyond what the Obama administration called for.
Describing the plan, one unnamed Israeli minister told the newspaper Haaretz: “This isn’t an agreement with the Americans, but rather unilateral policy by the government of Israel.
The Americans said that they don’t agree with construction in the settlements in any case, but that they can live with it and there won’t be an international crisis over every new home that’s built.”
The disclosed new “restrictions” will not be seen as such by most of the international community, which regards Israeli settlement construction as a violation of international law.
The Palestinians view the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in 1967, as parts of a future state.
In December, weeks before Trump was inaugurated, President Obama allowed the UN security council to pass a resolution that declared all settlements in both areas to be illegal.
Trump condemned the decision at the time.
Responding to the announcement of the new settlement on Thursday night, senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said the move showed the government was pushing ahead with “their systematic policies of settler colonialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing, showing a total and blatant disregard for Palestinian human rights”.
She added: “Israel is more committed to appeasing its illegal settler population than to abiding by the requirements for stability and a just peace.”
A spokesman for UN secretary general, António Guterres, expressed “disappointment and alarm” at the announcement.
“The secretary general has consistently stressed that there is no plan B for Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace and security.
He condemns all unilateral actions that, like the present one, threaten peace and undermine the two-state solution,” Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.
For its part the White House pointedly avoided any specific condemnation of the announcement, although it said further settlement activity “does not help advance peace” and that it expects Israel to show restraint moving forward.
A White House official sought to play down Thursday’s announcement, saying Netanyahu made his promise to the Amona settlers before Trump laid out his vision.
The White House statement even went so far as to welcome what appears to be a limited Israeli commitment to take Trump’s concerns about settlements into consideration, without any guarantees to avoid similar announcements.
“As the administration has made clear, while the existence of settlements is not in itself an impediment to peace, further unrestrained settlement activity does not help advance peace,” the US official said.
“The Israeli government has made clear that going forward, its intent is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes the president’s concerns into consideration.
The United States welcomes this.”
The relatively tepid response was a far cry from the automatic condemnations voiced by the Obama administration in reaction to Israeli settlement announcements.
On the campaign trail, Trump indicated he would be far more sympathetic to settlements than Obama and the international community.
His platform made no mention of an independent Palestinian state, and his inner circle includes strong supporters of the settlement movement.
Since taking office, Trump has appeared to change his position, telling an Israeli newspaper last month that settlements “may not be helpful” and telling Netanyahu at the White House that he would like to see some restraint.
Since then, Israel and the US have been in talks over what kind of construction the White House would tolerate.