A week ago the Biden administration spoke out against settlement expansion in the West Bank. The State Department issued a statement saying “The United States is deeply troubled by the Israeli government’s reported decision to advance planning for over 4,000 settlement units in the West Bank. We are similarly concerned by reports of changes to Israel’s system of settlement administration that expedite the planning and approvals of settlements.”
These settlement expansion plans appear in fact to be something new. During Prime Minister Netanyahu’s many years in power, he restrained settlement growth. In general, he favored growth inside major settlement blocs—growth up and in, as we used to say in the George W. Bush years—but did not favor new settlements in areas of small Jewish and large Palestinian population, nor did he favor physical expansion of settlements. Settlers knew it and complained, and in the last election many left Netanyahu’s Likud Party and voted for the far right.
My former colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations, Uri Sadot, and I discussed the nature of previous settlement expansion plans in an article in Foreign Policy in 2022. There we noted that population growth is a natural phenomenon, but “The Israeli government can presumably affect whether new construction is inside or outside established blocks and has arguably tried to do so in the last decades.” This, I’d argue, Netanyahu has long done—until now.
But the new expansion, it seems, is substantially outside the major blocs—and as noted above the rules for approval are changing.
Why would Netanyahu agree to this? Because the far right parties representing the settlers have more power in his government today than they have ever had before. Or to put that equation backwards, because Netanyahu is weaker than he was previously.
That brings me to the Netanyahu invitation to visit the White House. Presumably the Biden administration believes it is achieving something important by refusing to invite Netanyahu. What it is actually achieving, however, is to weaken him against those in the governing coalition who seek the kinds of things the Biden administration opposes—judicial reform and settlement expansion. The White House is thereby truly biting its nose to spite its face—weakening Netanyahu to somehow punish him and thereby leading to exactly the results it least wants. On these issues of settlement expansion and judicial reform, Netanyahu has long been a moderating force. Weakening him aids more extreme voices.
Perhaps denying him an invitation gives the president and White House staff some personal satisfaction, but doing so undermines U.S. policy goals. It’s a foolish, even childish, position, and reversing it will advance administration policy. It is remarkable that administration “experts” on Israel don’t or won’t see that.