Settlement Freeze?

December 26, 2009

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

If there were any doubt of Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to the settlement enterprise, he dispelled it this week.

No Entrance To Bibi’s Freeze Inspectors,” reads the long, professionally printed banner hanging at the eastern entrance to Ariel. Ariel has a reputation of being a relatively moderate settlement. Its residents are mostly secular suburbanites; its eternally re-elected mayor belongs to Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s mainstream right-wing Likud. The Ariel finger — the heavily settled strip of land joining Ariel to Israel — is one of those blocs that centrist Israeli politicians insist will stay in Israeli hands under a peace agreement.

But the suburbanites, like the hard-core ideologues of the religious right, are furious at Netanyahu’s declared freeze on building in the settlements. When police and building inspectors showed up this week at Tzofim, a smaller settlement closer to central Israel, to seize a bulldozer being used for illegal construction, an angry crowd blocked their way. One policewoman was hospitalized, apparently with internal injuries, after protesters pummeled her.

The settlers’ response might give the impression that Netanyahu is serious about the freeze, that he has moved toward the center, that he has accepted the need to compromise on the West Bank’s future. Impressions can be misleading. Netanyahu remains what he was in his first term as prime minister in the 1990s — an ideologue, but a weak-kneed one. Under U.S. pressure, he makes concessions that are sufficient to incense his right-wing allies but never enough to allow progress toward peace. The settlers’ fury has more to do with their own fears than with Netanyahu’s actions.

The freeze is really a very thin layer of ice atop the river of settlement growth. Netanyahu says it will last just 10 months (of which three weeks have already passed) and no more. It doesn’t apply to Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, where building of Jewish neighborhoods is intended to block a political division of the city between Israel and a Palestinian state. It also doesn’t apply to 3,000 or more housing units already under construction elsewhere in the West Bank. For example, in Modi’in Illit, a town of 38,000 or so people, work continues on more than 850 homes. A recent analysis by the Peace Now movement shows that relative to population size, the rate of residential building is higher in the settlements than inside Israel — even during the supposed freeze. In other words, the availability of homes will keep encouraging Israelis to migrate to settlements. Unnatural growth will continue.

If there were any doubt of Netanyahu’s commitment to the settlement enterprise, he dispelled it this week. At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, he pushed through approval of a measure that will boost various kinds of government aid to dozens of small settlements deep in occupied territory. Those communities were set up by the hard right to lock Israel into permanent rule of the West Bank. They’re the settlements that centrists such as Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, would remove in order to allow establishment of a Palestinian state.

The only ministers who voted against the aid package were from the Labor Party. The party’s leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, reportedly cast his nay vote only because of intense pressure from other Labor ministers. In 1999, when Barak successfully ran against Netanyahu for the premiership, he attacked his opponent’s inconsistency with TV spots using the slogan “Bibi Zig, Bibi Zag.” Netanyahu hasn’t changed since then, but Barak has become his political ally.

Nonetheless, settlers have reacted as if Netanyahu were really freezing construction — indeed, as if he were ready to start evacuating settlements. The Tzofim incident is only the latest in which protesters have tried to block building inspectors from entering settlements. Leaders of the Council of Settlements, an umbrella body, have announced that they will violate orders to stop construction. “If need be, we’ll go to jail,” council director-general Pinhas Wallerstein has said.

Since the 2005 evacuation of the Gaza settlements, though, younger and more extreme activists have regarded the council as a bourgeois establishment, insufficiently willing to fight. Some of those extremists are apparently responsible for setting fire to a mosque in the Palestinian village of Yasuf last Thursday night. One of the slogans they spray-painted on the floor said, “Prepare for a price tag.” That refers to the radicals’ “price tag” policy of attacking Palestinians and their property after any government attempt to evacuate illegal outposts. Burning a mosque is an escalation of that effort to deter authorities from enforcing the law.

The response to a largely fictional freeze shows the settlers’ fears for their future. Living in a settlement is a gambit intended to make a pullback impossible. But even as the settlements have grown, more Israelis have accepted that a two-state solution is necessary. Politically, the settlements are built on sand. By evacuating the Gaza settlements, Ariel Sharon showed settlers that no politician was a truly reliable ally. Many hard-line settlers — especially young ones — believe that the disengagement from Gaza took place because they were too soft in their opposition, too hesitant to use violence, because the establishment leaders were too afraid to rebel. But the established leaders are also scared. “They are outraged over the construction freeze, but their real fear is of a Disengagement II and another round of expulsions, this time in Judea and Samaria,” Nadav Shragai, a pro-settlement journalist, recently wrote in the daily Yisrael Hayom.

Unfortunately, their fears are misplaced. Netanyahu has no intention of giving up settlements, and no desire to conduct peace talks that could lead to that result. He announced the freeze only because of pressure from the Obama administration. He included enough caveats to make the administration look ineffectual and to disappoint Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, who sees a real freeze as the key to renewed negotiations. Palestinians need only look out their windows to see the settlements expanding.

Besides managing to evade peace talks, all Netanyahu managed to do was upset his allies on the right. Having zigged, he proceeded to zag, giving more government funds to settlements. The settlers are not mollified. On the other hand, peace is no closer. As usual, Netanyahu has found a way to disappoint everyone.