WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Joe Biden’s plans to visit Israel next month appear to be unaffected by Israel’s steps to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank, even as his administration “strongly opposes” the anticipated approval of almost 4,000 units.
“We understand that Israel announced a meeting to advance new West Bank settlement units for May 12,” Jalina Porter, a State Department spokeswoman, said Friday in a media call. “The Biden administration has been clear from the outset: We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which exacerbates tensions and undermines trust between the parties. Israel’s program of expanding settlements deeply damages the prospect for the two-state solution.”
Porter launched the call by first condemning the latest terrorist attack in Israel, in Elad on Thursday, which killed three people.
“This was a horrific attack targeting innocent men and women,” she said. “It was particularly heinous coming as Israel celebrated its independence day.”
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, leading a precarious coalition that controls just 60 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, acceded this week to demands from more right-wing lawmakers that he allow the responsible authorities to approve new building in the West Bank. The calls have intensified in recent weeks amid a spate of deadly terrorist attacks.
Pressed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as to whether there would be repercussions for the announcement, and whether it would affect Biden’s plans to visit, Porter would only say, “We have been clear about the need to avoid unilateral steps that would exacerbate tensions and make it more difficult to preserve the viability of a two state solution.”
Israeli media, citing Israeli officials, had reported on Friday that the announcement would not affect Biden’s plans to visit. There were reports that Bennett’s government would soon announce permits for building for Palestinians in West Bank areas under Israeli control, which could be seen as a concession to Biden for the Jewish settlement expansion.
One of the most serious crises in U.S.-Israel relations in recent times came during Biden’s 2010 visit as vice president, when the Netanyahu government announced new building in eastern Jerusalem at a time that the Obama administration was hoping to kickstart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.