Israel's settlements could test ties with Biden

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An Ultra-orthodox Jewish man walks past a construction site of new residential project in the east Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. Israel's West Bank settlements could provide a key test case for U.S.-Israel relations during the Biden presidency. Israel has an opportunity to push through a final frenzy of construction plans during the last two months of the settlement-friendly Trump administration. But doing so would risk antagonizing the incoming president, who has a long history of opposition to Israeli construction in the occupied West Bank. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

JERUSALEM – President-elect Joe Biden may never forget Ramat Shlomo.

On a visit to Israel in 2010, Biden was caught off guard when authorities announced plans to build hundreds of new homes in the sprawling Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem. The incident embarrassed Biden and sparked a diplomatic rift with the Obama administration that never quite healed. Yet despite Biden’s opposition to the project, a decade later Ramat Shlomo has ballooned.

The episode could foreshadow what lies ahead under the Biden administration — with a U.S. president opposed to Israeli construction on occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians but seemingly limited in his ability to stop it, particularly when dealing with a changing Middle East and preoccupied by domestic priorities.

The coming two months provide a key test for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the matter. The Israeli leader, a longtime supporter of the settlements, may seek to take advantage of the final days of the settlement-friendly Trump administration and push through a flurry of last-minute construction projects. But doing so could antagonize the incoming administration.

Both settlement supporters and critics expect Netanyahu to proceed with caution. With the Biden administration expected to re-engage with Iran over its nuclear program, Netanyahu’s top security concern, he seems unlikely to pick a fight with the president-elect. Netanyahu’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Martin Indyk, a former U.S. peace negotiator during the Clinton and Obama administrations, said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer a “vital national interest” for Washington and that he did not expect Biden to make it a priority. Nonetheless, he said Biden still has a strong familiarity with the region.

“I don’t think he’s going to want to have a fight over settlements. But if Bibi makes it an issue, then there will be a problem there,” said Indyk, using Netanyahu’s nickname.

Trump has delivered a number of diplomatic gifts to Netanyahu, including the withdrawal of the U.S. from the international nuclear deal with Iran, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there. Trump recently brokered three normalization deals between Israel and Arab countries, shattering a longstanding position by Arab states that have traditionally withheld recognizing Israel until it made major concessions to the Palestinians.