A former US ambassador to Israel has accused Binyamin Netanyahu’s far-right government of breaking a written agreement with Washington by legalising a group of hardline nationalist and religious settlements in the West Bank.
Daniel Kurtzer, who served in Tel Aviv during the George W Bush administration, also warned that some ministers in Netanyahu’s new coalition were not interested in a peace agreement with the Palestinians. He called on the Biden administration to be more proactive in stopping Israel’s “creeping annexation” of the West Bank.
Mr Kurtzer said the retroactive authorisation of the nine so-called outposts earlier this month, alongside plans to build thousands of new homes in larger West Bank settlements, was a further blow to a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
“It’s also a significant violation of a commitment that the Israeli government made in writing to the American government back in 2004 when, in a letter to the then Bush administration, Israel undertook to dismantle illegal outposts, illegal settlements,” he said.
“Now you’ve come full circle. Not only are they not dismantling these illegal outposts, but they’re trying to legalise them ex post facto. And there have been many that have been built since that time, so that the number is really quite significant.”
All the settlements are considered illegal under international law but Israel distinguishes between permitted construction and unauthorised outposts that are often nonetheless established with official complicity. About 700,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem.
Speaking to the Jewish Democratic Council of America, Mr Kurtzer said the approval of the outposts “has ramifications that go far beyond the immediacy of it” because the legalisation adds to the spread of settlements encroaching on a potential Palestinian state.
“I hope the Biden administration reminds Israel that this is a commitment in writing that the both of us have in our files,” he said.
Mr Kurtzer said he was also concerned about Israel’s plans to press ahead with building settlements in an area just outside Jerusalem known as E1.
“If Israel builds there as they want to build, [it] would effectively cut the West Bank in two,” he said.
Shortly before Mr Kurtzer spoke, Mr Netanyahu gave sweeping authority to the leader of the far right Religious Zionist Party, his finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, over governance of the West Bank. Peace groups in Israel condemned the move away from military administration as de jure annexation of occupied territories.
Mr Kurtzer said that he was not sure all the ministers in Mr Netanyahu’s government were interested in peace with the Palestinians but he believed the Israeli people were, and for that reason Washington needed to be “proactive”.
“If Israel is still interested in a peace process, it’s going to have to stop a number of the actions that it’s taking. It’s going to have to start doing some things that it’s not doing. And the United States will have to demonstrate our own resolve and advising Israel in that direction,” he said.
Mr Kurtzer described Mr Netanyahu’s coalition as “smart” in making a wave of controversial moves at one time that make it difficult for the Biden administration to respond.
“The coalition in Israel is throwing all of these roadblocks and challenges before us, including the domestic and including the Palestinian issue,” he said. “It requires a lot more work on our part, to do what we think is going to help move this peace process forward, and to help our friends Israel maintain the strong democracy that they’ve had since the founding of the state.”