Why is Israel bent on expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank?

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Tel Aviv announced a plan to build thousands of homes for Jewish settlers on land belonging to Palestinians.

Despite extending a hand of friendship to the Arab states, Israel this week said it is pushing ahead with a plan to expand Jewish settlements in the occupied territory, which Palestinians hope will one day become part of their country. 

Israel last month struck deals to normalise relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain against a promise to postpone annexation of the Palestinian lands in the West Bank. 

Construction of new homes for the Jewish settlers in existing settlements such as Geva Binyamin and Nili, are not covered in the normalisation deals.

But the announcement that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has approved the additionional 2,166 new homes has come at a time when the Israeli parliament on Thursday debated the normalisation treaty with the UAE. 

“This is a time when people may debate against Netanyahu’s decision to halt the annexation plan and he may face some criticism from the right-wing parties,” says Dr Nimrod Goren, head of The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies (Mitvim). 

“Maybe Netanyahu is trying to balance the media coverage.” 

Israel has carved chunks of the West Bank, the region on the west side of the Jordan River, and the fertile Jordan Valley. Over the years, more than 700,000 Jewish settlers have built homes and businesses on the occupied Palestinian lands. 

The West Bank is home to 2.5 million Arabs. 

Generally, any plan to expand the size of a settlement goes through multiple phases – an announcement to this effect does not necessarily mean that new housing units will be built, says Goren. 

“Sometimes it is a symbolic declaration, which doesn’t really mean anything on the ground.” 

Nevertheless, expansion of the settlements is part of Netanyahu’s political agenda. 

“He wants to build new homes in existing communities without building new  settlements. His argument is that people are having babies, that they need kindergarten schools and new homes.” 

Netanyahu is also desperately trying to please his political base especially after barely surviving an election earlier this year. 

“He is just cautious about the right-wing political party Yamina, which is rising in the polls and he doesn’t want to give them ammunition to attack him.” 

Uncertainty remains over Netanyahu’s intentions about the much thornier issue of the annexation of occupied Palestinian territory – his campaign promise to conservative Jewish voters. 

When the deal with the UAE was announced last month, Netanyahu was quick to say annexation has only been temporarily suspended upon Washington’s request, while the plan was still on the table.

Internationally, any annexation of Palestinian territory is widely condemned as it erodes the possibility of Palestinians having a country of their own in the future. 

It also means that Jewish settlements illegally built on occupied Palestianian land officially become a part of Israel. 

Netanyahu is facing a crisis at home. His government is being met with criticism for not doing enough to stop the coronavirus pandemic, and opinion polls suggest that economic welfare is the biggest concern for Israelis these days. 

In successive election campaigns, he has used the promise of annexation to win the support of Jewish settlers and conservatives. 

Historically, Arab countries linked any recognition of Israel with the removal of Israeli settlements from Palestinian land occupied during the 1967 war. 

Now the leaders of the UAE and Bahrain seem to have gone back on that pledge. 

As far as the opposition to Tel Aviv’s plan to expand the settlements is concerned, Goren says a lot depends on the response of Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt. 

“But I don’t see anything happening right now.” 

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