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Israeli hard-liners, emboldened by Trump, push for West Bank territory grabs

JERUSALEM -- The municipality of Jerusalem granted final approval Sunday for the construction of hundreds of new homes in east Jerusalem, while a hard-line Cabinet minister pushed the government to annex a major West Bank settlement as emboldened Israeli nationalists welcomed the presidency of Donald Trump.

However, shortly after the approval was granted, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office says his Security Cabinet has unanimously agreed to postpone their vote on the proposal to annex the settlement. 

The pro-settler Jewish Home Party has been pushing the government to annex the Maaleh Adumim settlement, near Jerusalem. The party’s leader, Naftali Bennett, believes the Trump administration will be friendly to the settlement movement, and that Israel should therefore drop the idea of creating a Palestinian state and instead annex West Bank settlements.

Netanyahu’s office said his Security Cabinet, which includes Bennett, had agreed to postpone a vote on the annexation proposal until after an expected meeting between Netanyahu and Trump next month. Bennett’s party had claimed that Netanyahu sought the delay, citing pressure from Trump.

Netanyahu and Trump were expected to speak on the phone later Sunday.

After eight years of testy ties with President Barack Obama, Netanyahu has said he is looking forward to a new era of close relations with the U.S. under Trump. 

There were some reports in Israeli media that an announcement to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem was imminent. 

However, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told CBS News: “We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject.”

At his weekly Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu thanked Trump for his friendship and his inauguration speech pledge to battle radical Islamic militants. He said they would discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the situation in Syria and the Iranian threat, among other issues. 

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York City September 25, 2016. Trump campaign photo

More hawkish elements in his coalition, however, are already calling for concrete action given Trump’s perceived acquiescence to Israeli settlement building. 

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, was pressing the government to back legislation that would annex Maaleh Adumim, a sprawling West Bank settlement just east of Jerusalem. He also urged Netanyahu to abandon his stated position in favor of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. 

Netanyahu, a longtime supporter of the settlements, has nonetheless been cautious about expanding them in the face of strong opposition from the U.S. and other Western allies. With Trump signaling a much softer line toward the settlements, Israeli hard-liners say there is no longer any reason to show restraint. 

“For the first time in 50 years, the prime minister can decide: either sovereignty or Palestine,” Bennett wrote on Twitter. 

An official in the Jewish Home Party said Netanyahu was urging Bennett to put his proposal on hold. Netanyahu said that he had been asked by Trump administration officials not to take any major action without proper coordination, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal coalition negotiations. 

The official said Jewish Home officials were skeptical of Netanyahu’s claims and would continue to push the government to approve the annexation measure. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment. 

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York September 21, 2016.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Such a move would cause a major clash with the Palestinians and the rest of the international community, which consider settlements to be illegal. The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem - areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war - for a future independent state. 

Annexing Maaleh Adumim would be seen as undermining negotiations. It is also in a strategic location in the middle of the West Bank that could impede the establishment of a future Palestinian state. 

In the meantime, the Jerusalem municipal housing committee granted building permits for 566 new homes in east Jerusalem. The permits had been put on hold for the final months of the Obama administration. 

Building is planned in the neighborhoods of Ramot, Pisgat Zeev and Ramat Shlomo. 

“We’ve been through eight tough years with Obama pressuring to freeze construction,” said Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. “I hope that era is over and we now we can build and develop Jerusalem for the welfare of its residents, Jews and Arabs alike.” 

Deputy Mayor Meir Turjeman, who heads the committee, said an additional 11,000 homes were planned in east Jerusalem. He said he hopes to get the plans approved by the end of the year and begin construction in the next two to three years. 

U.N. ambassador Samantha Power 06:00

Israel clashed frequently with Obama over construction in areas it conquered in the 1967 Mideast war, and last month, the Obama White House allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution condemning settlements as illegal. 

Trump has signaled he will take a far kinder approach to them. 

Trump’s appointed ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has close ties to Jewish West Bank settlements as does the foundation run by the family of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Tax records show Trump also donated money to a Jewish seminary in a settlement. 

In a sign of the changing times, a delegation of West Bank settler leaders said it was invited by Trump administration officials to attend the inauguration. 

Unlike other West Bank settlements, Israel annexed east Jerusalem and considers its neighborhoods inseparable parts of its capital. But the annexation is not internationally recognized. 

Netanyahu says Jews have been in these areas for centuries and that their presence does not undermine prospects for peace. He blames failed peace efforts on Arab denials of Jews’ historical connections to the land. 

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the building plans and called on the U.N. to act. “It is time to stop dealing with Israel as a state above the law,” he said. 

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