Netanyahu: Strategic overture or tactical bluff?

Dec 03, 2009 Published under Israel, Leadership, Mideast Negotiations, Palestine

Interesting article by IPF’s Roberta Fahn Schoffman on recent moves by Prime Minister Netanyahu to enforce restrictions against Settlement building. 


Inching Forward

By Roberta Fahn Schoffman

Created Dec 2 2009 – 5:21pm


Just five days after the Netanyahu government declared a 10-month moratorium on settlement building, an enlarged and more muscular team of Civil Administration inspectors were dispatched to the West Bank to enforce the new restrictions. Calling the government’s move draconian, settler leaders are taking their case to the High Court, with a petition filed by The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel.  Other settlers, who hold less faith in the judicial system, quickly poured fake concrete foundations to get in under the wire of new building starts; the moratorium allows for the continuation of 3,000 units already underway, as well as the construction of 28 new public buildings and schools.   Others are already taking to the streets.

There is much speculation as to what this all means.  Is it just a cynical effort on Netanyahu’s part to buy time and Obama’s gratitude, or does it signal a more fundamental shift by the prime minister? Whatever it is, it was not a move taken lightly by Netanyahu, nor by the settlers who view it as an existential threat.  They are even calling it a modern-day White Paper (which refers to the 1939 decision by the British government to restrict the continued development of a Jewish National Home in Palestine).

Given the political constraints Netanyahu is juggling, and the conflicting internal voices he must be battling in his head, this is nothing short of dramatic.  Whatever motivated Netanyahu – - a desire to appease the White House, an attempt to get Abu Mazen back to the negotiating table, or an effort to appeal to a wider constituency in Israel – - his ability to get his right-wing government to accept such a dovish position cannot go unnoticed. Even if the hawkish ministers in his security cabinet voted for the moratorium to prove that nothing, including this grand gesture, will ever bring the Palestinians back to the table, Netanyahu’s ability to maneuver and persuade was impressive. Yet in spite of his considerable political skills, he will have to resist the temptation to think that he can be everything to everybody. His statements this week that this is “a one-time, temporary decision” and “We will go back to building at the end of the suspension”, intended to calm the fears of the settlers, will surely raise the eyebrows of the Americans and further deepen the suspicions of the Palestinians.

Exploiting the current situation for political advantage is not limited to Netanyahu and the right wing, but is the game also being played by Labor Party leader Ehud Barak.  Still defending his decision to bring Labor into this government, Barak continues to be repudiated in his party for being “more Bibi than Bibi”, for lending cover to what is essentially an anti-peace coalition.  Barak, not surprisingly, jumped on the moratorium bandwagon, calling it “a national mission of the first order.” Through his efforts to underscore his critical role in moving the cabinet toward a peace process, and to justify putting Labor in the coalition, he can chalk up at least one victory: the five Labor rebels, in light of the moratorium, have decided not to leave the party, for now.

Barak, as Minister of Defense, has overall responsibility for the territories.  He announced on Sunday that 40 new building inspectors and dozens of new Civil Administration workers would be hired to help enforce the construction freeze.  Backed up by the police and the Border Patrol, the inspectors have entered 90 settlements, and issued 64 stop-work orders in the first days of operation.  According to Makor Rishon newspaper, one member of the Settlers’ Council said that the scope of the preparations and the seriousness with which the security establishment was taking this matter was “reminiscent of the preparations that were made for the expulsion from Gush Katif” at the time of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

And just like the Gaza disengagement, the protests are heating up. Labor Party Minister Isaac Herzog refused this week to meet with Samaria Regional Council Chairman Gershon Mesika because the settler leader had torn a construction freeze order to pieces. “The State of Israel is now holding an internal debate that has been going on for decades,” Herzog said on Israel Radio, “and this is reflected in the government decision, an unprecedented decision. This decision was made for several reasons, among others, in order to try and jumpstart a peace process."

By mid-week, settler activists were being arrested for blocking the inspectors and other acts of civil disobedience.  According to Yedioth Aharonot, we can expect more confrontations and anti-moratorium activities: “Doubling the number of outposts in Judea and Samaria, establishing a school to train a new generation of Jewish construction workers, the establishment of a Haredi task force to recruit Haredim against the construction freeze, placing protest vigils opposite the houses of ministers ‘who share in the crime of strangling settlement,’ as the right wing activists call it, and a campaign against public workers responsible for implementing the cabinet decision on a construction freeze.”

Col. Shaul Arieli, a member of the board of directors of the Council for Peace and Security, explained in a phone conversation this week that the main problem the settlers have with the moratorium order is “not the move itself, but that the government is finally implementing the law. Until now, the government looked the other way,” he said, “and even in those cases where the High Court intervened, nothing was done.” In reality, “this doesn’t really harm the settlers. Bibi had already approved the 3,000 units, which is more than enough for both natural growth and an influx of hundreds of new settlers. There is really nothing new here.”  Talia Sasson, who authored the 2005 Government Report on Illegal Settlement Activity for Prime Minister Sharon, is skeptical.  “First of all, the emphasis here is on the word ‘partial’,” she told me. “The moratorium does not include Jerusalem. It does not include commercial buildings. And, there is no way of knowing how many previously approved permits for building are already out there; how many settlers will claim that they received the permit and laid the foundation before the November 25th declaration.” Moreover, she said, “given the long history of the government not abiding by its decisions regarding the destruction of illegal buildings or the removal of illegal outposts in the West Bank, why should this time be any different?”

For those hoping for progress in the peace process, the real concern is whether the moratorium can influence the probability of getting back on track.  Netanyahu’s decision, for all of its complexity, seems unlikely to bring about a renewal of negotiations. Arieli raises the inevitable question as to why Abu Mazen would come to the negotiating table. “So that Netanyahu can drag him along for another ten months? So that Netanyahu can then claim that they are making no progress? So that Netanyahu can then accelerate the settlement building once again?” Nimrod Novik, a longtime observer of the process, agrees that this moratorium will not be the magic bullet. “Palestinians cannot come down from the tree they climbed with Obama’s help,” he told me this week. “The president set the bar too high, and now the Palestinians cannot be less Obama than Obama.”

But even so, there does seem to be value in the decision. Novik believes that it was not a cynical act, but “a constructive move to avoid an explosion.” It is all about conflict management, he said. “First, it appeases Washington; next it will hopefully keep Abu Mazen from resigning; and finally, it allows the conflict to be managed until the circumstances can change enough for real progress to be made.”

Quite apart from all the factors, obvious and less so, that brought about this “unprecedented” moratorium on settlement building, one thing seems clear: Like Netanyahu’s endorsement of two states at Bar Ilan University last June, this move is one more irrevocable step toward a two-state solution.  Yes, in ten months, should there be no progress, or should the Palestinians continue to boycott negotiations, the moratorium can be revoked. But the larger gesture is irreversible, because Bibi Netanyahu has once again crossed the ideological divide. He has poked one more hole in the Greater Land of Israel balloon, and has given momentum to the growing Israeli mindset that accepts the inevitable division of the land. For those holding firm to the belief that a peaceful, two-state resolution to the conflict is still possible, this is a very good thing.

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