JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel broke ground on Tuesday on its first new settlement in the occupied West Bank for two decades, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, announcing the symbolic move on the eve of a peace mission by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.
“Work began today on-site, as I promised, to establish the new settlement,” Netanyahu wrote on his Twitter feed, which included a photograph of mechanical equipment digging into a rocky field.
He was referring to the construction of Amichai, which will house some 300 settlers evicted in February from the Amona outpost after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled their homes had been built illegally on privately-owned Palestinian land.
By highlighting the earth-moving work - no date has been announced for actual housing construction - Netanyahu appeared to suggest he believed he had little to fear from U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration over settlement building that has drawn Palestinian and international condemnation.
During a meeting at the White House in February, Trump asked Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit”, a request seen as part of an effort to build trust with the Palestinians ahead of a renewed push for peace.
The White House said on Sunday that Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, would arrive in Israel on Wednesday. Jason Greenblatt, a top U.S. national security aide met with Netanyahu on Tuesday, a few hours after his announcement about work starting at the site of the new settlement.
Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the ground-breaking ”a grave escalation and an attempt to foil efforts by the American administration to revive negotiations“, especially (before) the arrival of the U.S. envoys”.
Kushner and Greenblatt will sound out both sides “about their priorities and potential next steps” as part of Trump’s attempt to revive peace talks that collapsed in 2014, a White House official said.
But the official said any peace deal “will take time” and likely require “many visits by both Mr. Kushner and Mr. Greenblatt” to the region.
Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said the U.S. push to revive the peace process appeared to be a serious effort.
“There is huge pressure from the United States to advance this political process,” Kahlon said during an on-stage interview at a conference in Herzliya. “Something is happening, but I can’t say peace is around the corner.”
Palestinians regard settlements, around 200 of which have been built over the past 50 years on occupied land that they seek for a state, as obstacles to a viable and contiguous country. Around 400,000 Israelis now live in West Bank settlements, among around 2.8 million Palestinians.
When Trump visited Jerusalem on May 22-23, he studiously avoided any mention of settlements, at least in public.
Israel decided in March to build Amichai, which means “My People Live”, and in recent weeks it has approved plans for more than 3,000 settler homes elsewhere in the West Bank.
Most countries view settlements that Israel has built on land captured in the June 1967 Middle East war as illegal. Israel disputes that, citing biblical, historical and political links to the West Bank, as well as security interests.
The Palestinians want an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with its capital in East Jerusalem, and also claim historical and political links to the land.
Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and the territory is now ruled by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.
Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; editing by Mark Heinrich