Pressure Builds On Israel Renewing Settlement Moratorium

Our guest blogger is David Halperin, assistant director of Israel Policy Forum.

As the scheduled end of Israel’s West Bank settlement construction moratorium approaches on Sunday, pressure is rising for Prime Minister Netanyahu and the settlers.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has pledged to withdraw from negotiations if the moratorium is not renewed, telling reporters, “The negotiations will continue as long as the settlement (construction) remains frozen, but I am not prepared to negotiate an agreement for a single day more.”

Earlier this month, Peace Now reported that 2,000 housing units are slated to begin construction immediately after the moratorium ends with another 11,000 units in line for construction even without government approval. The group recently gave an aerial tour to Israeli members of Parliament, reporters and photographers, providing a bird’s-eye view of the growth of the settlements and outposts. “The point,” Peace Now’s secretary general, Yariv Oppenheimer, said over the plane’s public address system, “is to see how the reality has changed and how the binational state is getting closer.” Peace Now’s American affiliate also released a new application mapping the growth of settlements.

Referring to the 2,000 units slated for immediate construction, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — who said earlier this month that “signing a comprehensive peace agreement is an unattainable goal, not next year and not in the next generation” — told reporters that “there was no reason not to begin building there.” In response to the calls from United States and the international community to extend the freeze, Lieberman said “it is the job of leaders is to stand up to pressure. If we can’t withstand pressure on a relatively simple issue like continuing building in Judea and Samaria, how can we defend other interests.”

Netanyahu has hinted at a compromise in which Israel continued building in the settlement blocs, but not wide-scale building. He recently told reporters “On one hand, we will not build all the tens of thousands of housing units that are waiting in the planning pipelines, but on the other hand, we will not freeze life for the residents of Judea and Samaria and will not freeze construction.”

Egypt has proposed that Israel extend the moratorium by three months, a compromise the United States reportedly supports. Haaretz reports that Israeli officials have begun to frame their policy as a renewal of Prime Minister Olmert’s, in which the majority of construction occurred in the blocs. But Netanyahu also told his Likud party ministers on Sunday that “there has been no change in our position” regarding continued construction after the moratorium ends.

Still, the settlers are growing concerned. The Jerusalem Post reports that settler leaders are preparing for a “declaration of war” if the freeze is continued:

If Netanyahu continues the freeze, we would see it as a declaration of war,” said Samaria Regional Council head Gershon Mesika. “We would do everything possible to topple the prime minister, because from our standpoint, there would be no difference between Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak, and Balad.”

The Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria will intensify its anti-freeze efforts Monday with new ads featuring key Likud Central Committee members urging Likud ministers to keep their promises. The council has adopted the tactics of Likud activist Moshe Feiglin to move the Likud rightward by signing up 7,000 new party members from Judea and Samaria in a campaign called “Right to the Likud.”

Meanwhile, Haaretz reports that four Likud members are threatening to join right-wing forces to oppose the government’s two-year budget if the construction freeze is extended:

Likud sources said they expect right-wing parties such as National Union and Habayit Hayehudi to cause problems in getting the budget through parliament if the construction freeze in the settlements continues, and if Netanyahu offers the Palestinians various proposals to which the right wing objects.

If the budget is not passed by March 31, 2011, under law, the Knesset would have to disband. New elections would have to be called, and would be held in the middle of 2011.

Settler advocates are also intensifying their use of government institutions to create facts on the ground and launch public campaigns in support of West Bank settlement. Coteret’s Didi Remez points to a Yedioth Ahronoth report yesterday that Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov (Israel Beiteinu) plans to allot 9 million shekels for “tourism” in the West Bank, including 2 million for the controversial “City of David” project in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem:

Tourism Minister Misezhnikov sent letters yesterday to mayors in Judea and Samaria and explained that he considered this a Jewish-Zionist necessity. “The Tourism Ministry attaches great importance to developing tourism in Judea and Samaria, which is the basis for ‘Every Jew’s Story’ and is located in the very heart of the State of Israel,” the minister wrote. “The historical heritage serves as a significant drawing point both for internal tourism and for tourism from abroad.”

In the letter, the tourism minister notes that upon the expiration of the security cabinet’s decision to suspend construction in Judea and Samaria, “I have decided to budget infrastructure, tourism and public projects throughout Judea and Samaria.” The minister also instructed the settler leaders to turn to Tourism Ministry Deputy Director General for Infrastructure and Investments Shai Weiner in order to receive a commitment for promoting projects in the territories.

The focus on tourism in the West Bank is not new. As Ha’aretz reports, “In the past, West Bank settlers marketed their presence as of vital importance to national security and strategy. But these threats failed to conquer their audience.” Instead, settlers are finding success marketing the settlements as tour destinations:

The tours are neatly tailored to suit the character of each group. Most of them begin at Bruchin, where guests are told that while the settlement was established in the wake of a government decision and had received most of the required permits, it was still termed an (illegal ) “outpost” by the official report authored by Talia Sasson. Visitors continue to a tasting at the Tura Winery in Rechalim, where they receive a bottle as a gift, intended to show them the high quality of life on the other side of the Green Line. From there they go to the Giv’ot Olam (Hills of Eternity) organic farm of Avri Ran.

Even with such efforts in place, Bradley Burston of Ha’aretz writes that the pressure could be getting to the settlers:

Most daunting to the settlers and their supporters is the fear that Benjamin Netanyahu may opt to follow in the paths of hawkish Likud founders Sharon and Menachem Begin, and launch a landmark withdrawal. It was Begin, settlers note, who pledged as he took power as prime minister, that he would someday retire to a settlement in then-occupied Sinai — only to return the entire peninsula and demolish the settlements there under the 1979 Camp David peace treaty.

Burston also points to the recent op-ed earlier this month titled “Your Move, Abbas” by Charles Krauthammer — a longtime advocate of the Israeli right — in which Krauthammer conceded that “No serious player believes [Israel] can hang on forever to the West Bank”:

This has created a unique phenomenon in Israel — a broad-based national consensus for giving nearly all the West Bank in return for peace. The moment is doubly unique because the only man who can deliver such a deal is Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — and he is prepared to do it.

Krauthammer also claims that it is now up to Abbas to accept Israel’s right to exist, but Krauthammer’s suggestion of relinquishing the West Bank were enough to upset his friends on the right. In response to Krauthammer, Caroline Glick of The Jerusalem Post leaned heavily on the long-debunked claim that Israeli settlements advance Israel’s national security, writing “Now not only will Israel’s supporters need to battle the administration for the US to adopt a rational policy towards the Palestinians and Israel. They will need to battle their supposed allies on the Right”:

But while devastating, Krauthammer’s position is a side issue at the end of the day. Krauthammer is not the man charged with defending Israel. He’s a newspaper columnist and television commentator.

The man charged with leading and defending Israel is Netanyahu. Netanyahu is the man who stood for election. Netanyahu is the man who is responsible for leading and defending this country.

And Netanyahu is the man who is now leading us on a path to degradation and defeat.

Glick’s paranoia aside, Krauthammer is quite correct that Israel cannot hang onto the West Bank forever, but he is wrong that it is now Abbas’ move. The ball is now in Netanyahu’s court — and the settlers know it.