WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Friday criticized plans by Israel for settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and European countries responded sharply by calling for the halt of further growth in settlement blocs.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman led a small American delegation in meetings with Israeli Cabinet ministers Friday, discussing, in particular, a plan announced Thursday to build some 4,500 new housing units in Jewish settlements, most of them in the West Bank, which would mark a sharp escalation by Israel.
The moves came on the eve of President Donald Trump’s planned visit to Israel next week, where officials hope he will deliver a strong message of support for the Israeli government as it pushes ahead with its plans.
The settlement announcements sparked immediate protests from some U.S. allies, including the European Union and some Arab countries, which joined the United States in calling for construction plans to be halted.
Israel’s government, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was quick to condemn the decisions as being a betrayal of Trump. Netanyahu, in remarks to senior Cabinet ministers later Friday, said the announcements could set the path for peace with the Palestinians and warned ministers against using the American president’s visit as a “political cover” for settlement moves.
Friday’s meetings among top Israeli government officials, including Netanyahu, Friedman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the far-right Jewish Home party, dealt with Trump’s yet-to-be finalized visit, which was postponed from last week in the face of public uproar.
Several ministers emerged from the meeting pledging that Israel will honor Trump’s visit.
“We will offer the strongest defense for Israel to do what it has to do in order to defend its borders and its citizens from missiles,” Bennett said.
The settlement moves being announced Friday represent the most recent in a series of hard-line steps by Israel to expand its hold on territory the Palestinians claim for their future state. Although settlements are officially illegal under international law, Israel says they are an essential component of the country’s security. They also seem unlikely to dim Trump’s promise to push for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
U.S. officials have already said that any peace deal will likely include small Israeli modifications to settlements approved years ago that would not have been overtly controversial on their own. While settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has been blocked in some areas, Israeli officials have been working for years to expand many of the existing settlements.
Under Netanyahu, Israel has made significant progress on that front, approving more than 50,000 settlement housing units in 2016 alone. Of the 4,500 planned units announced Friday, some 2,500 were east of the West Bank and 900 were in the West Bank, according to a statement by the Israeli Housing Ministry. The other 200 would be in the Gaza Strip.
A version of this story first appeared on The Washington Post.