Under US pressure, Israel delays move to expand Jerusalem

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017. On Sunday Israeli officials said that under pressure from the United States, Israel has delayed a bill that would connect a number of West Bank settlements to Jerusalem. (Gali Tibbon, Pool via AP)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Under pressure from the United States, Israel has delayed a bill that would connect a number of West Bank settlements to Jerusalem, officials said Sunday.

The bill aims to solidify the city’s Jewish majority, but stops short of formal annexation, making the practical implications unclear. The bill says the communities would be considered “daughter municipalities” of Jerusalem.

Israel’s hard-line government has been emboldened by the Trump administration’s more sympathetic approach to Israel and its settlement enterprise than that of President Barack Obama, and the draft bill is part of a series of pro-settler steps the government has taken in recent months.

Still, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to remain in President Donald Trump’s good graces.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper quoted Netanyahu as saying Israel needs to coordinate the bill with the U.S.

“The Americans turned to us and inquired what the bill was about. As we have been coordinating with them until now, it is worth (to continue) talking and coordinating with them. We are working to promote and develop the settlement enterprise,” it quoted Netanyahu as saying at a government meeting Sunday.

Earlier Sunday, David Bitan, the Likud party’s parliamentary whip and a close Netanyahu ally, told Israeli Army Radio the vote was delayed because “there is American pressure claiming this is annexation.”

Trump has sent an envoy, Jason Greenblatt, to attempt to breathe life into moribund peace talks, which collapsed under U.S. tutelage in 2014. The effort so far appears to have yielded little progress.

Trump has presented Israel with a more lenient approach to its settlements than his predecessor. While the administration has said that settlements are “not helpful” to advancing peace with the Palestinians, Trump’s Mideast team, headed by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, is led by people with deep ties to the settler movement.

Unlike Obama, Trump does not demand a settlement construction freeze, though he has urged restraint. Nor does he demand the establishment of a Palestinian state, breaking from two decades of U.S. policy.

Trump has backed away from a campaign promise to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a key Israeli wish, sparking rare criticism from Israeli lawmakers.

Since Trump’s election, Israel has pushed a pro-settlement agenda that has included a bill meant to legalize hundreds of settler homes built on private Palestinian land. It has approved the first new West Bank settlement in two decades and greenlighted the construction of thousands of new homes.

The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war, as part of their future state, a position that has wide international backing. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally and considers the entire city its undivided capital.

Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement watchdog group, says the bill would amount to “de facto annexation” and be a clear step toward full annexation of the West Bank.

Israel says the fate of the settlements, home to more than 600,000 Israelis, should be decided through peace talks along with other core issues like security.

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