Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Gaurdian: Freeze won't hurt Netanyahu

(Guardian).Israeli rightwingers are furiously condemning the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, for his 10-month freeze on building houses for settlers on the West Bank. They damn him as mimicking the pharaoh of biblical times in preventing the Jewish nation's development. They promise every possible action to thwart him.

For a prime minister who is also rightwing it's certainly an unusual – and brave – action. But those denouncing him might be getting into an unnecessary sweat, because of uncertainty about what the freeze will mean in practice.

Its declared purpose is to bring Palestinians back to the negotiating table by meeting their demand for a cessation of all construction on the West Bank, which Israel calls Judea and Samaria. It is also intended to mollify the international community, and the US in particular, by demonstrating Israel's desire to reach agreement with Palestinians about a two-state solution.

But Palestinians are not being drawn. They reject the freeze as inadequate; and say that in any event it does not include East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel in 1967, where the building of hundreds of houses for Jews continues apace. Moreover, in the world at large the responses are mainly lukewarm.

The West Bank equation is blindingly simple and yet, strangely, is acknowledged only by some Israelis. Each and every new settler house that is built diminishes the chance of creating a viable and independent Palestinian state because land is used that should be assigned to the projected state.

The settlements are but one of the issues that Israelis and Palestinians must sort out. A halt to building will not in itself bring peace. But ending construction and dealing with the fact that settler numbers have swollen to some 300,000 since the 1967 conquest of the West Bank, plus another 200,000 in East Jerusalem, are among the indispensable steps towards reaching a peace deal.

There are four points to make in regard to the freeze. First, Netanyahu says that only construction already begun will be allowed – which means about 3,000 housing units can go ahead.

Second, construction of public buildings such as schools and synagogues will continue – and permits have already been signed for 28 of these.

Third, the government has in the past promised, repeatedly, to halt expansion – but the number of settlements and the number of settlers have grown year after year, either with official permission or with the connivance of government officials and the undercover use of taxpayer money. Nor has the government been consistent in carrying out court orders to dismantle so-called "illegal outposts" on hilltops which are flagrant examples of building without permission. The army razes some of them, and they are promptly rebuilt by zealous settlers who have a messianic belief that God gave the West Bank to Jews; others are left alone.

You simply have to visit an outpost to see what's happening: a while ago the defence ministry forbade the carting of caravans through the West Bank, so now caravans are delivered in bits and pieces and assembled on site.

Fourth, Benny Begin, a more than rightwing member of Netanyahu's rightwing cabinet and son of the former prime minister Menachem Begin, has given soothing assurances about the freeze. He voted for it, he told Arutz Sheva, a rightwing news service, but after 10 months "the government will go back to implementation of the policy of previous governments, in whose times there was a marked increase in settlement".

He noted further "that if this decision will strengthen Israel's international standing, and houses and buildings will continue to be built in Judea and Samaria, and new residents will enter the communities, then this decision will also have advantages".

None of this satisfies Netanyahu's domestic critics on the right. Activists have set up a "taskforce in the struggle against pharaoh's decrees" and plan actions to include the rapid building of closed balconies in established settlements, adding homes to hilltop villages and organising protest vigils outside the homes of cabinet ministers whom they say betrayed their voters by supporting the freeze. Inside Likud – Netanyahu's party – cabinet members who were not in the inner group who approved the freeze are demanding re-examination of the decision. Silvan Shalom, the deputy prime minister, says the party has always supported settlements and "if there is an ideological change, it should be done by means of public debate in Likud institutions, not as it was done".

It is likely that Netanyahu will surmount the challenges. His coalition government is stable and no one wants to lose their cabinet seat. He probably also enjoys broad public support – surveys have shown that many Israelis dislike the West Bank settlements. He even stands to gain in world terms: his noisy critics strengthen his projected image of a man determined to pursue peace with Palestinians.

Netanyahu at least has rare support – though qualified – from the left: Hagit Ofran, the Peace Now movement's expert on settlements, speaks of a "historical day" and says she is "cautiously optimistic". She notes that "in terms of words and declarations, there is a settlement freeze; in terms of deeds – it is too early to know".