JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to backtrack Wednesday, saying his government has “no intention” of returning to four abandoned settlements in the occupied West Bank under a law that was repealed by parliament this week. .
His statement followed harsh criticism from the United States and international uproar over Netanyahu’s far-right government, the country’s hardest-line ever, over Tuesday’s Knesset vote to reverse a 2005 law that dismantled the four settlements.
The Biden administration summoned the Israeli ambassador to Washington hours after the vote — a rare rebuke among allies. Meanwhile, the Jordanian parliament, in a largely symbolic vote, approved the expulsion of the Israeli envoy for the conduct of a firebrand minister.
Netanyahu said Tuesday’s Knesset vote ended a period that discriminated against and humiliated Jews by not allowing them to live in “northern Samaria,” using the Biblical term for the West Bank.
“That said,” he said, “the government has no intention of building new settlements in these areas.”
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman expressed America’s concern to Israeli Ambassador Michael Herzog in Washington over the Knesset vote. Just a few days earlier, Israel pledged not to approve new settlement construction or take unilateral action.
Critics fear the vote could pave the way for rebuilding the four settlements, abandoned nearly 20 years ago when Israeli forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip, and further damper Palestinian hopes for statehood.
Sherman and Herzog discussed “the importance of all parties refraining from actions or rhetoric that could further inflame tensions leading up to Ramadan, Passover and the Easter holidays,” the US State Department said.
Pressure against Israel’s new government increased further on Wednesday when the Jordanian parliament voted to expel the Israeli ambassador over Finance Minister Bazalel Smotrich’s speech on a podium adorned with a map of Israel that purported to include Jordan. The weekend incident, the Amman parliament said, “reflects Israeli arrogance that disregards international treaties and alliances.”
Netanyahu’s new hardline government has placed settlement construction at the top of its agenda and has inspired unprecedented protests inside the country against its plan to overhaul its legal system. Hundreds of women who call themselves “grandmothers for democracy” demonstrated against the legal review in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.
The United States, along with allies Egypt and Jordan, are keen to keep the atmosphere calm as large numbers of Jewish and Muslim worshipers flock to Jerusalem’s Old City, the emotional heart of the conflict. Two years earlier, tensions during Ramadan led to an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
President Joe Biden expressed his concern to Netanyahu during a phone call Sunday about the new government’s plan to reduce the judiciary’s isolation from the political system. Following the Knesset vote, the State Department said it was “extremely upset” and urged Israel to refrain from allowing settlers to return to the liberated areas.
However, Orit Strock – a cabinet minister, member of the far-right Religious Zionism party and a West Bank settler – rejected the US criticism, telling Army Radio that both sides “need to know how to accept these views and move forward in friendship.” Strock also gave an interview to settler station Arutz 7 in which he expressed his hope that one day Israel would also recapture the Gaza Strip.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid hinted on Kan radio on Wednesday that the new government has squandered a measure of goodwill with the United States
It “succeeded in destroying one of the greatest strategic assets we’ve ever had,” Lapid said. “I can’t tell you how powerful it is when you, as prime minister or foreign secretary, walk into every room in the world and everyone knows you’re there and you have the support of Washington. We don’t have it anymore.”
Since the 2005 law, Israeli citizens have been officially barred from returning to the four sites, although the Israeli military has allowed activists to visit and pray there.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist West Bank settler who is now a minister in charge of police, said Tuesday that the ban’s repeal corrects “a historic injustice” and pledged to continue promoting settlements.
Palestinians seek the West Bank and Gaza Strip as an independent state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel captured those territories in the 1967 Middle East war. Since then, more than 700,000 Israelis have moved into dozens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which most of the world sees as an obstacle to peace.