WASHINGTON (JTA) — A law passed by Israel’s government yesterday has sparked a strong rebuke from the Biden administration, words of caution from some of Israel’s strongest supporters in the Senate — and damage control from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The new law repeals a portion of Israel’s 2005 disengagement, in which it withdrew settlers and troops from the entirety of the Gaza Strip and from four settlements in the northern West Bank. While much of Israel and the world focused on the evacuation from Gaza, opponents of the decision have committed themselves primarily to securing a return to the West Bank settlements. The vote on Tuesday allowed settlers to do just that — making it once again legal for Israelis to enter the sites where the West Bank settlements once stood.
That led to one of the Biden administration’s most lacerating criticisms of Israel’s new right-wing government. On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said the law was “particularly provocative and counterproductive” and would not be “consistent” with Israel’s commitment to the United States.
“The U.S. strongly urges Israel to refrain from allowing the return of settlers to the area covered by the legislation, consistent with both former Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon and the current Israeli government’s commitment to the United States,” Patel said.
In another sign of the Biden administration’s attitude toward the law, Israeli ambassador Michael Herzog was summoned to discuss it with the deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman — a rare move that indicates displeasure.
Netanyahu responded to that condemnation on Wednesday by asserting that the law was purely symbolic. The vote “brings to an end discriminatory and humiliating legislation that prevented Jews from living in areas of the northern West Bank,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said, according to the Times of Israel. “However, the government has no intention of building new communities in these areas.”
The United States warning Israel that it is running the risk of its “commitment” to its closest ally is unusually strong language, and suggests that the Biden administration would see the rebuilding of the settlements as a major rift.
The drama follows a recent commitment by Israel to hold off on settlement expansion. Earlier this week, Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to cooperate on stemming a recent escalation of violence in the West Bank. As part of that agreement, Israel pledged to suspend settlement planning for six months. The summit where the agreement was reached was also attended by U.S., Jordanian and Egyptian officials.
The law allowing settlers to return to the area in the northern West Bank is one of a battery of far-reaching changes Netanyahu’s new government is hoping to push through. Most prominent among those plans is legislation to sap the courts of their independence, which has sparked massive, frequent protests in Israel’s streets and criticism from President Joe Biden and a range of other public figures.
Netanyahu is leading a coalition with far-right partners in senior roles, and his largest coalition partner, the Religious Zionist Party, strongly supports massive settlement expansion. On Tuesday, Orit Strock, a member of the party who serves as a minister in Netanyahu’s government, said she believes Israelis will one day resettle Gaza as well.
“How many years it will take, I don’t know,” she said in a television interview. “Very unfortunately, the return to the Gaza Strip will also involve many victims, just as leaving the Gaza Strip involved many victims. But there’s no doubt that at the end of the day, the Gaza Strip is part of the Land of Israel, and the day will come when we will return to it.”
Israeli-Palestinian relations — already tense since a sequence of Palestinian terrorist attacks over the past year and Israeli army raids on Palestinian population centers — have intensified since Netanyahu’s government was sworn in in December. This week’s summit was a bid to stem the violence ahead of a holiday season that includes the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Jewish holiday of Passover and the Christian holiday of Easter, when tensions in Israel and the West Bank have led to violence in previous years.
On Tuesday, some of Israel’s best friends among Democrats in Congress sent the Netanyahu government a message, urging it to abide by this week’s agreement with the Palestinian Authority.
“As we enter the holy month of Ramadan and prepare to celebrate both Passover and Easter, such de-escalation is crucial,” said the statement signed by Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, among them Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Ben Cardin of Maryland, two of Israel’s fiercest Democratic defenders. “Israelis and Palestinians deserve to live with security and in safety, enjoying equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and dignity. We remain committed to supporting a negotiated two-state solution.”