Israel moves quickly to take advantage of Trump support
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (AFP Photo/Dan Balilty)

Israel has moved immediately to take advantage of US President Donald Trump's pledges of support, announcing a major settlement expansion that deeply concerns those hoping to salvage a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Since Trump's inauguration last week, Israel has approved some 3,000 settler homes in the occupied West Bank and in annexed east Jerusalem, signalling a sharp change of pace from such projects during the Barack Obama years.

"Netanyahu is taking advantage of the presidential transition in the United States in order to appease the settlers, a small minority of the Israeli public, and score political points with his right flank," settlement watchdog group Peace Now said.

It said Israel's government was "jeopardising the two-state solution," the basis of years of negotiations.

Obama's administration, like much of the world, repeatedly called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to halt settlement expansion, warning that it was gradually eating away at the possibility of a two-state solution.

In a rare move, Obama's White House even declined to veto a UN Security Council resolution in the waning days of his administration condemning Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.

Such actions deeply angered Israel, but the United States is its most important ally, providing it with more than $3 billion per year in defence aid, leaving it little choice but to pay heed.

Israel expects a far different reception from Trump, who has pledged strong support and called for the UN anti-settlement resolution to be vetoed.

Netanyahu, who heads what is seen as the most right-wing government in Israeli history, spoke with the new president by phone on Sunday and the two are due to meet in person in early February.

- No comment? -

In a telling break with the previous administration, the White House did not condemn Israel's settlement announcements.

"Israel continues to be a huge ally of the United States," White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday when asked about Trump's perspective on settlement expansion.

"He wants to grow closer to Israel to make sure it gets the full respect in the Middle East. We'll have a conversation with the prime minister."

Settlements are viewed by much of the world as illegal and major stumbling blocks to peace efforts as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.

Netanyahu faces strong pressure from within his coalition to expand settlement building, with some ministers opposing a Palestinian state outright and advocating Israel annex most of the West Bank.

As an example, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel was among those criticising the settlement announcements as too little, calling them a "bluff."

The prime minister, who has said he still supports a two-state solution, has found himself caught between pleasing his right-wing base while restraining hardliners in his coalition pushing for more drastic moves, some analysts say.

The new settlement announcements fit that pattern, but the question remains of how far Netanyahu will go and if he will eventually distance himself from hardliners and move toward the centre.

- 'I was shocked' -

Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group think tank said Netanyahu was "trying to deflect (far-right pressure) with such announcements and he will need to do more of them in the foreseeable future."

A fresh outbreak of lone-wolf Palestinian attacks could occur as a result, he said.

Regional diplomacy could also come into play.

Both Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab nations with peace treaties with Israel, condemned the settlement announcements.

However, both cooperate with Israel on security and intelligence to fend off Islamic State-linked jihadists and would be hesitant to end it, analysts say.

Palestinian leaders acknowledge that the signs from Trump so far are negative, but they have also seemed to try to avoid alienating him given the heavy sway the United States can hold over their cause.

They have sought to warn over the implications of too heavily favouring Israel.

"I was shocked yesterday that when the spokesperson of the White House was asked about settlements, he did not even comment," Palestine Liberation Organisation secretary general Saeb Erekat told AFP.

"Mr. Netanyahu now thinks that he is working with the encouragement of this administration to destroy the two-state solution and to push this region further and further towards the hands of extremists, bloodshed and terrorism."