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Settlement expansion is first step in new era

    Tuesday's decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman to approve the planning and construction of 2,500 new settlement homes in the West Bank pleased almost no-one. 

    The settlers see it as far less than they deserve after long periods when new building was frozen during the eight years of the Obama administration.

    And a large part of the coalition wants the government to go much further and begin extending Israeli sovereignty to some of the settlements — in other words, annexation.

    The Palestinians were enraged, regarding it as another sign that their international support is dwindling.

    Many of Israel’s allies,such as the UK and Australia, were also angered — although, significantly, the tone of the condemnations appeared less firm than previously.

    But Mr Netanyahu had to placate his right-wingers — those within his own Likud party, his coalition partners Jewish Home and the influential settlers’ lobby. Ever since Donald Trump’s election victory he has been facing increasingly strident demands to take advantage, as they put it, of the new circumstances.

    For two months he told his cabinet colleagues to wait for January 20; since the inauguration, he now says “wait until my first meeting with the new president”. That is scheduled to take place next month. But Mr Netanyahu had to do something to alleviate the pressure before then.

    The prime minister is the subject of at least two investigations into allegations of corruption. There is likely to be more to come, as well as a criminal indictment. So Mr Netanyahu needs his coalition partners more than ever.

    The right is demanding a vote on a bill to annex Ma’ale Adumim, the third largest West Bank settlement. Mr Netanyahu has blocked this, fearing it will cause major problems both with the Palestinians and the international community. But he could not block a vote without offering something — such as approval for the 2,500 new homes.

    Mr Netanyahu already has a rapport with President Trump and a direct line to him. The new US administration asked the Israelis not to take any major steps before they had worked out US foreign policy priorities, but it is likely the announcement of the new buildings was, at least informally, cleared with the Oval Office.

    Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, refused to be drawn when asked on Tuesday.

    Ultimately, the 2,500 homes in the West Bank — as well as 566 new homes in Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem approved on Sunday — are a sideshow. The settlers are waiting for much more.

    All eyes are now on the upcoming Trump-Netanyahu meeting. That 
will bring a clearer indication of 
what the new administration is planning — and what it expects from Israel.

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