Biden administration warns building in Judea and Samaria endangers important deal for Israel

A weak response to Jews attacking Palestinians and allowing outposts to stand will harm prospects for easy travel to the U.S., say senior officials.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Senior American officials who visited Israel recently have told the Netanyahu government that a weak response to Jews attacking Palestinians and allowing unauthorized building in Judea and Samaria to stand will endanger Israel’s joining the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), The Marker reported Sunday.

In closed conversation with senior Israeli political and security officials, the unnamed Americans warned that “accepting the existence of illegal outposts and the lack of a firm hand in dealing with violence against Palestinians will harm not only the relations between Israel and the Gulf countries and the chances of establishing relations between it and Saudi Arabia, but also in planned Israeli-American cooperation, including granting the exemption for Israelis from needing visas to enter the U.S.,” said the report.

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf was just in Israel last month. The State Department statement said she would meet with senior Israeli political and military leaders to “discuss areas of mutual interest, including expanding and deepening Israel’s integration into the Middle East and constraining Iran’s destabilizing behavior.”

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She also met with senior Palestinian leaders to discuss “priority issues in U.S.-Palestinian relations, including U.S. efforts to support the Palestinian people,” according to the official readout.

According to a Haaretz report, since Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich secured authority over the Civil Administration as a special minister in the Defense Ministry, the number of demolitions of unauthorized Jewish buildings in Judea and Samaria has been sharply reduced. According to the left-wing paper’s data, an average of 25 demolitions were carried out per month during 2022, while between January and May this year, there were only two per month on average.

“There has been no Israeli enforcement for a while now,” a security official was quoted as saying. “Once the world of enforcement was an IDF insider story, today the settlement administration is informed about almost everything” and political pressure is applied to stop most of the demolitions.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told JNS Thursday that “We’ve told our friends and allies in Israel that if there’s a fire burning in their backyard, it’s going to be a lot tougher, if not impossible, to actually both deepen the existing agreements as well as to expand them to include potentially Saudi Arabia.”

The previous week, the State Department had condemned Jewish extremists’ rioting in several Palestinian-Authority controlled towns following the murder of four Israelis outside the village of Eli, in which dozens of Arab homes and cars were firebombed and several residents were injured.

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“Accountability and justice should be pursued with equal rigor in all cases of extremist violence, and we welcome the IDF’s condemnation of these acts and expect the Israeli Government to ensure full accountability and legal prosecution for those responsible for these attacks, in addition to compensation for lost homes and property,” said Deputy State Department Spokesman Vedant Patel in a press briefing.

Regarding the Visa Waiver Program, Israel’s refusal rate for visa applications has dropped below the required three percent, and the Knesset has passed the legislation to share necessary data with the U.S, in order to comply with VWP regulations. A pilot program is beginning this month that will ease entry to Israel for Muslims and Palestinian Americans, who are a security concern for Israel but who must not be discriminated against according to the VWP rule of reciprocity.

Ten days ago, 65 Senators sent a letter to Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas urging them to approve Israel for the VWP, citing the “increased potential for both tourism and business travel” and reinforcement of the strong ties between the two countries that the approval would engender.