WASHINGTON -- Political observers to the left of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are calling a release of bids for the construction of new housing units in West Bank settlements an intentional gambit to boost Netanyahu's Likud party ahead of Israeli elections in mid-March.
On Friday, Israel published what are known as "tenders" for 450 new homes across four existing settlements in the West Bank. The announcement was the first of its kind since October, leading Netanyahu critics to suggest the move is an attempt to curry favor within the nationalistic settler movement ahead of the elections, which are set for March 17.
About 600,000 Israeli civilians now live in settlements in the territories Israel seized from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Palestinians hope to establish a state in the territories, and much of the international community consider the construction of settlements there a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace. Israel says the status of the settlements must be decided in negotiations.
The announcement by the Israeli Housing Ministry, led by pro-settlement Jewish Home party member Uri Ariel, immediately drew condemnation from the Palestinian Authority.
The U.S. government also criticized the decision: State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the move would further isolate Israel internationally and would "inflame tensions," while White House spokesman Josh Earnest said new settlements would hurt Israeli security and undermine attempts to bring about a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.
The Israeli Housing Ministry defended itself by insisting that the tenders were old and were simply being re-marketed.
The controversy over the new settlement bids comes as Netanyahu is on the defensive over the address he is to give before Congress in early March concerning Iran's nuclear program, which his opponents argue is inappropriate given the speech's proximity to the elections and the fact that he accepted House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) invitation without notifying President Barack Obama's administration.
Given the timing of the settlement announcement, Likud is facing new suspicion, as it is vying with the Jewish Home party for the votes of the non-ultra-Orthodox right wing.
Zahava Gal-On, the chairwoman of the liberal Meretz party, said settlement construction "is taking advantage of the election season and is sabotaging any chance of a diplomatic settlement," according to Haaretz.
The settlement watchdog organization Peace Now also linked the move to the elections. "It is a pre-election grab to establish facts on the ground made by the Netanyahu government," the group said in a statement.
Terrestrial Jerusalem's Daniel Seidemann said the latest plans were unlikely to be the last before March 17.
"It's the opening of the settlement floodgates," Seidemann said. "This could hardly be an accident; it could not have taken place without Netanyahu's knowledge and consent."
Some in the United States, however, weren't so convinced the settlement announcement was connected to the elections.
"This government has a consistent record of building and expanding settlements, so I don’t see it especially as an election ploy," Alan Elsner, J Street's vice president of communications, told The Huffington Post Friday. "They’re doing what they do, they build settlements when there is an election and when there isn’t an election."
Elsner suggested that Netanyahu had abandoned any pretense of being willing to halt settlement construction ever since talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority faltered. J Street's position is that the United States government should take more of a leadership role in guiding the two camps toward an agreement.
"What has happened in the last six to eight months is that Netanyahu has dropped any kind of ambivalence and thrown in his lot clearly with the settlement movement, which has pretty much taken over the Likud party," he said.