Trump Election Boosted Building in Yehudah and Shomron

YERUSHALAYIM (AP) -
israel settlements
A view of houses in Efrat, in Gush Etzion. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Israel’s government spending in Yehudah and Shomron surged following the election of President Donald Trump, according to official data obtained by The Associated Press.

Both supporters and detractors of Israeli construction in the region have previously referred to a “Trump effect,” claiming the president’s friendlier approach to the issue is having an impact.

While the new Israeli figures obtained in a freedom of information request do not prove a direct connection, they indicate this process may already be underway, showing a 39 percent increase in 2017 spending on roads, schools and public buildings across Yehudah and Shomron.

Hagit Ofran, a researcher with the leftist group Peace Now, said it appears that President Trump’s election has emboldened Israel’s government.

“They are not shy anymore with what they are doing,” she said. “They feel more free to do whatever they want.”

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, offered even sharper criticism. “This proves that the current U.S. administration encouraged settlement activities,” he said.

“The Trump administration is undoubtedly the most friendly American administration of all time,” said Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha council. “In contrast, the Obama years were extremely hard for Israel. Now we are making up for lost ground.”

The government statistics, released by Israel’s Finance Ministry, showed that Israeli spending in Yehudah and Shomron in 2017, Trump’s first year in office, rose to 1.65 billion shekels, or $459.8 million, from 1.19 billion shekels in 2016.

The 2017 figures were the highest in the 15 years of data provided by the Finance Ministry, though spending also climbed in 2016. At the time, President Barack Obama, a vocal critic of such construction, was a lame duck, and relations with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu were cool.

In contrast, the lowest year of Israeli spending was 2009, when both Netanyahu and Obama took office, when it was 760.7 million shekels. The data included only the first half of 2018, so full-year comparisons were not available.

The ministry released the data after two years of requests from the AP, which received backing early this year from “The Movement for Freedom of Information,” a legal advocacy group that assists journalists.

The figures include only government spending, so construction and purchases of private homes are not included. Israel also does not include items like police, education, health and military spending, saying such services are provided to all Israelis regardless of where they live.

But even with these caveats, the data provide a valuable snapshot of Israel’s priorities. The figures include spending on public construction projects, such as roads, schools, social centers, synagogues, shopping malls and industrial parks. They also include special development grants for local governments and mortgage subsidies.

The areas with the strongest growth in 2017 were in school construction, which jumped 68 percent, and road construction, which rose 54 percent.

Revivi, who is also mayor of Efrat, near Yerushalayim, said the spending was badly needed.

He said that school spending was legally required because of the fast-growing population. He also said that roads in the area have been in “dire condition” for years, and there is a drastic need for improvements.

PM Netanyahu’s office did not answer a request for comment.

In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Yerushalayim repeated the White House policy. “While the existence of settlements is not in itself an impediment to peace, further unrestrained settlement activity doesn’t help peace,” it said.

The Finance Ministry data is collected each year and shared with the U.S., which, under a policy going back to President George H.W. Bush, deducts the sum from loan guarantees for Israel.

It also includes a small, but unspecified sum spent in the Golan Heights. Just a few thousand Israelis live in the Golan, and Peace Now said the sums spent there were “not significant.”