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New West Bank Settlement Approval Appears To Defy Ambiguous 'Policy Of Restraint'


We're going to turn now to the ongoing conflict on the West Bank. Earlier this week, Israel's security Cabinet approved construction of the first new Jewish settlements on the West Bank in some 20 years. Although more than half a million Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank in East Jerusalem, Israel hasn't built a new settlement on that land since the 1990s. The Palestinians claim that land. The decision still has to be approved by the full Cabinet, but it could inflame tensions with Palestinians and also irritate the Trump administration, which has asked Israel to slow the pace of settlement.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we've called Martin Indyk. He's the executive vice president of the Brookings Institution. That's a research institute in Washington, D.C. He's also a former ambassador to Israel and was a special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. We reached him in Denver. Ambassador, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MARTIN INDYK: Hi, Michel, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, could you tell us about this proposed new settlement? Does it differ in some way from the others, or is the significance of this, does this lie in the security Cabinet's decision itself?

INDYK: Well, both. It's - differs from previous settlement policy because it is establishing a new settlement. Essentially, successive governments of Israel established so many settlements that they didn't need to establish new ones. But in this case, they had to take down an existing settlement outpost that had originally been built illegally on Palestinian land, and in exchange for taking that down and getting the settlers to cooperate, they committed to making - to establishing a new settlement. It's part of a broader policy of restraint which the government of Israel has announced in which they say that they will only build in as much as possible within existing built-up areas. And where that's not possible, they will carry out construction adjacent to the existing line of construction.

MARTIN: As we mentioned earlier, President Trump advised or asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February against building any new settlements. But we also understand that there are members of his administration who think settlements should go forward. So how do you understand the U.S. stance toward settlements right now?

INDYK: Well, they welcomed this new policy announcement that the government of Israel made. However, I think what they will discover, if past is prologue, that the language of this new policy is broad enough, has enough loopholes in it, to drive many settler trucks through it. So either they know that there really isn't going to be a policy of restraint and they've agreed to go along with this new policy or they don't understand how it will be implemented in practice. And it will create friction going forward.

MARTIN: Tell us more about that, if you would. Tell us more about why you say it will create friction going forward. And I'm also - I'm obviously - I'm also interested in how you see the Israeli government's decision or - to take this decision at this particular point.

INDYK: It's described as a policy of restraint, but the only commitment is to try where they can to build in existing settlement construction lines. However, there's a loophole, which is that if they can't do that, they'll build adjacent to it. That was a policy adopted by an earlier Netanyahu government during the Clinton administration when I was ambassador in Israel. And the loophole that was created then and is repeated in this new policy is one in which they will build adjacent to the settlement construction lines. But what we discovered back in the 1990s was that Netanyahu's definition of adjacent was not next to the last building but rather the next hill over. So it became a prescription for expanding the settlement footprints, not limiting them. And this approach is built into the new policy that they've announced.

MARTIN: Do you have any other thoughts about how are the Palestinians likely to react to this and the rest of the international community?

INDYK: Well, the Palestinian spokesman, Saeb Erekat, who is also the chief negotiator, came out and condemned this yesterday. I'd like to apply a litmus test to whether it's a real policy of restraint or not in terms of how the settlers respond to it. And so far, the settlers have maintained radio silence, so they appear not to be unhappy with this arrangement, which is a sure sign that it's unlikely to be very restrained. As far as the international community is concerned, the Europeans who lead the criticism of settlement activity came out and condemned the new settlement. But we'll have to see how the policy is implemented whether it actually amounts to restraint. If it doesn't, then I think the international community will be opposed to it as they have been before.

MARTIN: That's Martin Indyk. He twice served as U.S. ambassador to Israel. He's the - currently the executive vice president of the Brookings Institution. He also served in the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. Ambassador Indyk, thanks so much for speaking with us.

INDYK: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.