JERUSALEM (AP) – President-elect Joe Biden can never forget Ramat Shlomo.
On a visit to Israel in 2010, Biden was caught off guard when authorities announced plans to build hundreds of new homes in a huge ghetto in East Jerusalem. The incident embarrassed Biden and created a diplomatic rift with the Obama administration that never recovered. Yet despite Biden’s opposition to the project, Ramat Shlomo flew balloons a decade later.
The episode could foreshadow what’s next under the Biden administration – a US president opposed to Israel’s construction on occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians, but appears to have limited their ability to prevent it, especially when Working with a changing Middle East and predetermined by domestic priorities.
The ensuing two months provide an important test for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the matter. Israeli leaders, longtime supporters of settlements, may try to take advantage of the last days of the township-friendly Trump administration and push into a halt of last-minute construction projects. But doing so may oppose the incoming administration.
Both settlement supporters and critics expect Netanyahu to proceed with caution. With the Biden administration expecting to rejoin Iran with its nuclear program, Netanyahu’s top security concern, he is unlikely to battle with the president-elect. Netanyahu’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Martin Indyck, a former US peace negotiator during the Clinton and Obama administrations, said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer a “significant national interest” for Washington and did not expect Biden to make it a priority. However, he said that Biden still has a strong familiarity with the area.
“I don’t think he wants to fight the settlements. But if Bibi makes it an issue, then there will be a problem,” Netanyahu said, using Netanyahu’s surname.
Trump has distributed several diplomatic gifts to Netanyahu, including America’s withdrawal from the international nuclear deal with Iran, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and relocation to the US embassy. Trump recently broke three normalization deals between Israel and Arab countries, breaking a long standing position by Arab states that traditionally backed from recognizing Israel until it made major concessions to the Palestinians Proceeded.
In a break from his Republican and Democratic predecessors, Trump has also taken a very soft line toward settlements. Surrounded by advisors with close ties to the settlement movement, Trump’s administration announced last year that it does not consider settlements illegal under international law. Then, in January, he unveiled a Middle-East plan that included parts of the West Bank, including all settlements that were under permanent Israeli control.
This year Israel was poised to begin annexing the West Bank region under the Trump plan, but it was rejected as part of a deal establishing ties with the United Arab Emirates. However, Israel plans to build thousands of new homes throughout the West Coast. Anti-settlement monitoring groups expect additional settlement approval in the West Bank and East Jerusalem before Trump’s term ends.
Biden has already indicated that he will reverse many of Trump’s decisions, claiming “ironclad” support for Israel. He has come out against unilateral announcements and supports a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Although he has said he will not take the embassy back to Tel Aviv, he hopes to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem that manages relations with the Palestinians and reinstate hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians that led to Trump Got cut.
Palestinian officer Hannan Ashravi called on the incoming administration not to revert to the “mistakes of the past” and said the traditional American condemnation of the settlement extension would not be sufficient.
“There should be accountability and consequences if Israel continues its settlement policies,” she said. “Otherwise, if Israel continues with expansion and settlements, what would be the benefit of the statements of censure?”
The Palestinians, with extensive international support, sought the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in 1967 as part of a future independent state. About 500,000 settlers now live in the West Bank, and more than 220,000 in East Jerusalem, Palestinians say, the chances of establishing their kingdom are rapidly declining.
The previous US administration saw settlements as illegitimate and barriers to peace. President Barack Obama behaved even more harshly and the new construction was repeatedly confronted with Netanyahu. Before leaving office, Obama allowed the UN Security Council to pass a resolution declaring the settlements illegal.
A nadir in those ties came with the 2010 Ramat Shlomo incident at Biden’s expense. As they held friendly meetings with Israeli officials, Israel’s interior ministry approved the construction of 1,600 new apartments in the neighborhood. Netanyahu said at the time that he had been blinded by the announcement by lower-level technocrats and tried to prevent the loss at a late dinner with Biden.
Nevertheless, Biden issued a harshly worded statement that the approval lowered trust.
At the time, Ramat Shlomo had about 2,000 apartments, according to Ir Amim, a group tracking settlement construction in Jerusalem.
Today, the area, which Israel considers to be a neighborhood of its capital, is undergoing a construction boom, according to Peace Now, about 600 homes being built, another anti-compromise surveillance group. Ir Amim says more than 700 additional apartments are in the pipeline. This week, bulldozers shook dirt and cranes in a neighborhood building frenzy.
Brian Reeves, a Peace Now spokesman, said the group hoped Biden would change the tone on the settlements but would not press enough to stop Israel.
“The US will resume its condemnation of settlements, but is not going to take any drastic action against it, so it looks like it is ringing hollow,” he said.
Disappointed leaders losing Trump to a friend said they expected Biden to separate from Obama and not insist on building restrictions.
“I hope they don’t revert to the old attitudes that took us into a deadlock,” said Oded Rivivi, Mayor of Adrat Basti.
For now, Israel is unlikely to take too many bold steps in the settlements if it wants to favor an administration likely to resume the Iran nuclear deal.
“The number 1 issue for Israel is Iran. Not the settlements, not the peace process, not the Palestinians, ”said Eitan Gilboa, a US-Israeli relations expert. “Anything that can disrupt cooperation with the United States on Iran is going to stop.”
Associated Press cameraman Alan Bernstein in Jerusalem contributed to this report.