Israeli jackhammers broke ground on a new Jewish settlement in the West Bank on Tuesday, just one day before President Trump's adviser Jared Kushner joins talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah aimed at reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Kushner's arrival to participate in a round of shuttle diplomacy is seen in the region as a sign that Trump is serious about advancing an "ultimate" agreement between the sides, even though administration officials have yet to reveal a plan for negotiations.
In an apparent bid to calm his core pro-settler constituency ahead of the peace talks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted a picture of tractors at work on a rocky slope in the West Bank. The new settlement, dubbed "Amichai," marks the first time that an Israeli government has decided to build a new town in the West Bank since the mid-1990s.
"After dozens of years, I have the honor of being a prime minister who builds a new settlement in Judea and Samaria,'' Netanyahu wrote in the tweet, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names. In a follow-up tweet, he wrote, "there has never been and there will never be a better government for settlements than this government.''
A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the Israeli prime minister's announcement as "a serious escalation" and "an attempt to thwart the efforts of the U.S. administration and U.S. President Donald Trump."
In a statement, spokesman Nabil abu Rudaineh said the timing of the announcement "indicates that Israel is not interested in U.S. efforts.''
In preparation for the talks, Trump's point person, Jason Greenblatt, held a round of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials on Tuesday, including Netanyahu and his longtime negotiations envoy, attorney Isaac Molcho.
"He shared his experience in how to build peace," Greenblatt tweeted, referring to his meeting with Molcho.
The arrival of Kushner, who the president has tapped to oversee Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, comes one month after Trump visited Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Bethlehem for meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas.
"It's sending a signal to the two parties, 'Get serious, we are in it for real, and we're not affected by the background noises in Washington,''' said Nimrod Novik, a former adviser to Israeli leader Shimon Peres. "'You told your president that you are serious about the process, now we need concrete evidence of that to get the process rolling.'"
The Trump administration has been pressing both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make goodwill gestures to build momentum for talks: Washington has pressed Israel to take steps to boost the Palestinian economy and ease up on settlement expansion; it has called on Abbas to halt government payments to Palestinians involved in attacks against Israel.
"The time is coming for [Trump] and his administration to put forth their own ideas, and perhaps propose some principles to guide negotiations on final status,'' said Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, in a conference call with reporters.
"The president is at the point of maximum leverage right now. It's difficult for any party in the region to say 'no' to him…. Jared Kushner's arrival and involvement now raises those stakes for everyone. It essentially dares each of the parties to say 'no.' And my guess is they won't.''
Israel's continued building of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank was a bone of contention with the U.S. under the Obama administration, and spurred repeated public criticism from Washington. The Trump administration, in contrast, has chosen not to criticize settlement activity in public.
The new settlement that Netanyahu boasted about on Tuesday was approved as a concession for a group of Israelis who were evicted from the Amona hilltop outpost because the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it was built on Palestinian privately owned lands. Since Trump's election, the Israeli prime minister has been under pressure from settlement leaders to step up building in the West Bank.
In a report to the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday, the U.N.'s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, said the new settlement "would further sever the territory contiguity of a future Palestinian State, solidifying a line of settlements dividing the northern and central West Bank."
The U.N. coordinator said in his report that there had been a "substantial" increase in settlement planning and building announcements by the Israeli government in the last three months. Meanwhile, the Israeli statistics bureau on Monday reported a 70% increase in housing starts in the West Bank settlements over the 12-month period that ended March 31 compared with the same period a year before.
Though the Israeli government has yet to approve a development plan to build houses for the new settlement, it took the unusual step of beginning to prepare the physical infrastructure for the building, said a spokeswoman for Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes the settlements.
"This is yet another bending of the laws that the government is doing in order to satisfy the settlers' demands,'' wrote Hagit Ofran, a spokeswoman for Peace Now. "It is unprecedented."
Mitnick is a special correspondent.