A housing construction site in the Israeli settlement of Har Homa in East Jerusalem.
Credit: Menahem Kahana

JERUSALEM — Israel has stopped issuing new housing tenders to settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — and Israelis are speculating why.

A powerful critic of settlement expansion, US President Barack Obama, will visit Israel on March 20. That leaves little doubt, local media said, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is calculating how to ensure the smoothest visit possible.

Netanyahu reportedly ordered a suspension, not a permanent freeze, on settlement construction, according to Maariv newspaper, Agence France-Presse reported.

“It’s a temporary step to prevent a diplomatic storm,” Maariv newspaper quoted a Netanyahu associate as saying.

Dark clouds amassed around the issue back in March 2010, during a visit to Israel by US Vice President Joe Biden, when Israel announced it would build 1,600 new homes in the East Jerusalem quarter of Ramat Shlomo.

Tensions are particularly high between Palestinians and Israelis. Now, on Obama’s first trip as president to Israel, the Israeli government is working overtime to make sure this visit appears like a success.

For Netanyahu, keeping up good appearances with Tel Aviv’s all-important relationship with Washington is as crucial as ever, says Noga Tarnopolsky, GlobalPost’s senior correspondent in Israel.

“It’s important to remember in what a weakened condition Netanyahu is,” she says. “He all but lost the last elections. He has been unable to form a government in four weeks. There’s a real possibility that, at the time of Obama's planned visit, Israel will be plunged into political chaos.”

The Israeli prime minister especially needs good news in the area of foreign affairs, where much of his weakness lies.

Netanyahu's first term in office was marked by notable diplomatic reverses, Tarnopolsky explains. Prime examples were the loss of friendship with Turkey, once an important ally, and tensions with the United States. “While neither is entirely Netanyahu's fault, Israelis hold him responsible,” she adds.

This wouldn’t be the first time the Netanyahu administration has appeared to tweak its settlements policy for the benefit of its Washington relations. In February last year, Israeli media reported that Netanyahu had ordered a pause on new home construction in mainly-Arab East Jerusalem during his visit to the White House.

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