Israel pushes to legalize West Bank settlements as Trump arrives in Tel Aviv

Israel pushes to legalize West Bank settlements as Trump arrives in Tel Aviv
The Israeli government is pressing for the legalization of Jewish settlements and outposts in the West Bank, as US President Donald Trump arrives in Tel Aviv. Talks with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu on curbing settlement activity are reportedly possible.

Israel’s security cabinet created a committee on Sunday night tasked with legalizing West Bank outposts and illegal settlements, the Jerusalem Post reports. The new body will include members of the prime minister’s office, the Defense Ministry and civil administration. 

Last December, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, passed the Settlement Regulation Law, which declared legitimate some 4,000 settler homes located on privately-owned Palestinian land in the West Bank. That step prompted the High Court of Justice to adjudicate whether the controversial law should be upheld.

The newly-formed committee will deal with the issue within three years, and the roadmap for its work will be pitched to the government in 21 days, according to the newspaper.

Notably, the news broke just one day ahead of the arrival of US President Trump, who is visiting the Middle East as part of his first international tour. While in Israel, Trump is expected to touch on a number of sensitive issues, including settlement activity in the occupied territories and the two-state solution with Palestine.

Illegal Jewish settlements are seen as one of the major stumbling blocks preventing Arab-Israeli reconciliation. Many settler homes have been built on private lands seized from the Palestinians, and the settlers themselves are perceived as being a tip of the spear of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

More than 600,000 Jewish people live in about 140 settlements built since Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967.

The settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this. The international community does not recognize Israeli administrative control over the whole of Jerusalem, and countries maintain embassies in Tel Aviv.

Trump’s election promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and the subsequent appointment of David Friedman as ambassador, an orthodox Jew and son of a rabbi, have been met with enthusiasm among right-wing settlers.

Earlier in February, however, Trump voiced his first concerns about Israel’s settlement construction when meeting Prime Minister Netanyahu in Washington, DC. “Hold back a bit,” Trump told Netanyahu in front of reporters, referring to any future settlement expansion.

Now Trump wants “assurances and signals from the Israeli government that they’ve heard his views,” a senior White House official told the Jerusalem Post, adding that the president will also discuss the two-state solution. 

Trump arrived in Israel on Monday after taking part in a summit of Arab and Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, where he urged Muslim-majority countries to take the lead in combating Islamist extremism. In his Riyadh speech, the American president said again he believes that a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians is possible.

A massive security operation is underway in Israel ahead of Trump's visit, during which he will hold separate talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem the next day.