I recently returned from a trip to Israel and Palestine, where I had the chance to speak with a number of Palestinian officials about the challenges facing the Palestinian national movement. Near the top of the list, of course, was the problem of Israeli settlements. One official remarked to me that “We used to call Palestine ‘Swiss cheese,’” because of the pockets of Jewish settlements scattered throughout Palestinian land. “But now,” because of how Palestinian territory has been reduced to a series of isolated enclaves surrounded by a sea of illegal settlements and outposts, Israeli security zones, and Israeli-only highways, he said, “I call it ‘the New Philippines.’”
Another official, while trying to remain optimistic about the two-state solution, noted that it was difficult to take Israeli interest in such an outcome seriously as it continued to gobble up Palestinian land for Jewish settlements. “We know what Israel is doing,” he said. “It’s imposing its reality on the ground.”
Yesterday at Middle East Channel, Michael Sfard, a legal adviser to Yesh Din, an Israeli NGO that monitors violations of Palestinian human rights in the Occupied Territories, posted an item describing how that reality is being imposed, even during the current “freeze.” The Israeli government “is compensating the settlers generously” for introducing a partial settlement construction freeze, Sfard wrote. “The reward is huge and expensive, and it is paid in the most precious currency Israeli leaders have: outpost legalization and planning approval.”
The settlers, ideological and patient in a manner that only messianic communities are, understand that while the construction moratorium is temporary, legalization of outposts and approval of construction plans will have long-term effects. They see the attraction in this barter for the long run and act accordingly. They play their role in the freeze game: They demonstrate against it, they send their young hooligans to clash with the Israeli army and police, they violate it publicly, but they do not declare the current government as their enemy, as they did when late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared a narrower construction moratorium — one that applied only to state-funded construction in settlements. The planning-and-outpost-legalization-for-temporary-moratorium deal has never been announced publicly or ever officially confirmed. We may only infer its existence by reviewing the evidence revealed in the last five months.
Sfard noted significant changes in three areas. The first involves settlement outposts illegal even under Israeli law (international law considers all the settlements illegal), which it now appears that the Netanyahu government is in the process of retroactively legalizing. The second involves a slowing of the process by which illegal outposts are removed (even though a vanishing few are ever actually removed, and most of those are quickly rebuilt by settlers, with Israeli troops looking on.) And the third involves accelerated planning for future settlements:
[S]ince the construction freeze was introduced, several major neighborhood plans for settlement where either approved or advanced in the relevant planning committees. Those plans include together thousands of housing units in extremely sensitive places, and some of them were pending for years while consecutive governments avoided advancing them. When negotiating the construction freeze, the U.S. administration did not listen to Israeli voices who repeatedly warned of the shortcomings in a construction freeze that did not include a planning freeze. The result, as anticipated, is severe, and its first signal arrived less than a week after the moratorium was declared: The West Bank planning committee approved a plan for a new neighborhood of 360 housing units in the Talmon settlement, deep in the West Bank. The plan retroactively Koshered 60 illegal houses already built and allowed the erection of hundreds of new ones. The plan was pending for years and the settlers have failed time and again to have it approved. In the same way other plans were advanced since the moratorium was declared, most of them far from the 1967 line and others in East Jerusalem.
The settlers are preparing for the day after the construction freeze; the day of the de-freeze. And when that day comes, they are certain a construction boom of significant scale will commence.
Needless to say, Netanyahu’s preparing for a massive Palestinian land grab when the partial moratorium expires doesn’t exactly speak well of his commitment to peace, or his seriousness about a two state solution, or do much for the credibility of Palestinian leaders who agree to enter into negotiations with him. Maybe it’s time for the U.S. and its partners to call on the Israelis to elect new leaders untainted by support for settlements.