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Israel: Bennett imposes 'de facto freeze' on settlement expansion under 'US pressure'

Settler leaders say prime minister's refusal to allow planning council to convene means 'complete freeze on future construction'
New settler units under construction in May on the outskirts of the Ramat Shlomo settlement in occupied East Jerusalem (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has placed a de facto freeze on the building of settlements and their expansion under US pressure, according to the newspaper Israel Hayom.

The newspaper reported that Bennett had refused to allow members of Israel's Supreme Planning Council in the occupied West Bank to convene, thus preventing it from approving new construction and settlement expansion plans.

The publication, which is close to opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, said that Bennett's decision means a "complete freeze on future construction" of settlements in the West Bank as long as the Supreme Council is prevented from meeting.

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It said that Bennett's decision was "a demand" passed on by Washington, and that a member of the settlements' council had described it as "surrender to American dictates".

The Supreme Planning Council is responsible for approving construction plans for settlements' expansion and infrastructure. It is part of the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat), a body within the Ministry of Defence, which runs the West Bank.

The Supreme Planning Council, which normally convenes every three months, held its last meeting in January.

The previous government, under Netanyahu, was supposed to set a date for a meeting of the council, but Defence Minister Benny Gantz prevented it from doing so, insisting only the new government should do so.

'The ball has never been in Washington's hands'

Bennett, an advocate of annexing the Jordan Valley and large chunks of the West Bank, has vowed that his government will back settlements.

In June, he approved 31 plans for settlers to build a synagogue and a Torah school, a shopping centre and new units in the illegal settlement of Yitzhar, north of the West Bank. He also approved plans to expand and develop settlements including Mishor Adumim, Kfar Adumim and Karni Shomron. 

Bennett, who was a former head of the Yesha Council, an umbrella for Israeli Jewish settlements, denied that he had placed a de facto freeze over settlement expansion, saying that the Supreme Council had not convened for seven months during Netanyahu's tenure.

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Yossi Dagan, a settler leader and head of the Samaria Regional Council, called on Bennett to clarify his position and promise that he "will not make any kind of construction freeze" of settlements in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem.

"We fought against the construction freeze in the previous governments and fought so that there is no construction freeze in this government," Dagan said.

"In this government, the ball has never been in Washington's hands, it has always been, is and will be in Jerusalem," he added.

The administration of US President Joe Biden is placing increasing pressure on Israel to engage with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which partially governs the West Bank, in a bid to thaw ties and move to peace talks between the two sides, which have stalled since 2014.

Gantz phoned PA President Mahmoud Abbas earlier this week to discuss "building trust" between them, in the first high-ranking contact between Israeli and Palestinian officials since Bennett's government was sworn in last month.

Last week, a senior US official warned Israel of the possible collapse of the PA, urging them to engage with it.

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