Going into Yom Kippur, if there is anyone in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s cabinet that US President Barack Obama’s administration would like to apologize, it’s Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel.
The Obama administration arguably has taken a tougher stance on construction over the pre-1967 borders than any of its predecessors. Its condemnation of the advancement of a building project in Jerusalem’s Givat Hamatos neighborhood was especially fierce.
While some Israeli analysts would say it is Obama’s obsession with settlements and not Israel’s construction in them that has prevented the advancement of a diplomatic process with the Palestinians, there is no doubt that the American president sees Ariel and his policies as a diplomatic obstacle.
It is extremely doubtful that Ariel will be granted entrance to the White House any time soon – just like his namesake, Ariel Sharon, was once boycotted in Washington when he had Ariel’s job.
Washington’s assessment of that Ariel ended up being way off course in retrospect. Could the same be true of this Ariel? The No. 2 man in Bayit Yehudi and the head of the Tekuma party that is expected to merge into it will apparently never make a Sharon-like shift. But he does want to reach out to the Palestinians.
In an interview at his office in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah – which for Obama, is on the wrong side of the Green Line – Ariel explains what socioeconomic incentives can be given to the Palestinians which could help them much more than another construction freeze in Judea and Samaria, or linking building to releasing more Palestinian prisoners.
“We don’t have a partner on the other side,” Ariel says.
“The possibility of getting to a deal in the future does not exist any more than in the past or present. The prime minister knows [Bayit Yehudi’s] opinion, and I hope he won’t be pressured by [Yesh Atid leader] Yair Lapid and [Hatnua head] Tzipi Livni to do things that are wrong and unhelpful.”
Ariel says he hopes Operation Protective Edge persuaded Israelis how important it is for the IDF to control all of Judea and Samaria, so they will not become launching pads for missiles like Gaza and Lebanon.
But he clarifies that the regional diplomatic process Lapid was pushing for at the time of the interview and Netanyahu called for at the UN and in the White House this week would not be a casus belli that would cause Bayit Yehudi to quit the coalition.
“There could be dialogue for the sake of dialogue so there won’t be a disconnect, but it will not bring results,” he says. “Talking is not a reason for dismantling the government. The question is what those talks would bring.
A building freeze would be a reason for a crisis.”
Ahead of the interview, Channel 2 reported that Netanyahu said in closed conversations that he would never again release prisoners to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. If gestures have to be made to the Palestinians to restart a diplomatic process, the US is likely to demand another freeze.
Ariel has other ideas.
He suggests economic development. For instance, he would allocate much more water to the Palestinians, connect more of their cities to gas pipelines, enable the construction of hotels, and build a network of roads that would remove the need for security checkpoints inside Judea and Samaria.
The cost of such projects could stretch into the billions, but Ariel has ideas about how to involve donor countries in improving the quality of life for Palestinians.
“I have told the prime minister I hope he advances the quality of life for the Arab population in Judea and Samaria,” he says. “It is our obligation. It helps them and us. There lives can be changed completely for the better.”
And what happens if West Bank Palestinians don’t want handouts from Israel? “That’s their problem, but I say don’t ask them. We should just do it.”
“Freezing construction doesn’t give them anything. Freezes are just symbolic. We tried that and it didn’t work,” says Ariel, as he recalls the government’s most serious crackdown on settlement construction, before he became construction and housing minister.
For 10 months, from November 2009 through September 2010, there was a moratorium on Jewish housing starts in Judea and Samaria.
“There were 10 months in which people who had permits to build in their pockets were arrested. How did that help the Palestinian people? It was unethical, and brought no geopolitical gain.”
“So we know not to go in that direction; the question is now in what direction should we go,” he says. But the fear of a freeze remains, because of the past history, he adds.
This is strengthened by the understanding that Netanyahu controls building over the pre-1967 lines in Judea and Samaria and in Jerusalem.
“There is control, but is not a freeze,” he notes.
From a statutory perspective, Ariel says, he would have marketed 5,000 units over the pre-1967 lines this year, instead of almost 2,000.
There are also some known projects that Netanyahu has halted because they are diplomatically sensitive – such as the 3,500-unit project in an unbuilt area of Ma’aleh Adumim known as E1.
“If building could occur in Ma’aleh Adumim [E1], it would relieve some of the housing pressure from Jerusalem,” he says. “There is some other building in Ma’aleh Adumim [outside of E1] but it is too little, too late.”
Ariel would also like to see more building in the fourth-largest settlement, the city of Ariel, which is home to the only university in Judea and Samaria; it is close to Tel Aviv and attractive to young couples.
“Ariel is a very important city because it is in the center of the Shomron and offers services to many satellite communities in that area,” he explains.
The fact that less building occurred there in the last 15 years had more to do with the absence of prepared plans than a de facto freeze in an attempt to keep the city’s population low in preparation for an evacuation in a peace agreement.
There is broad consensus within Israel, even among the Yesh Atid and Hatnua parties, that Ariel will remain part of Israel should there be a final-status agreement with the Palestinians, he says. “We market too little and too late in Ariel. The city is filled with students who need every open room; we could market at least 2,000 units there.”
There are 300 units under construction there, “but that is nothing in the life of a city.”
Ideologically, Ariel opposes any plan to withdraw from territory over the pre-1967 lines, in Jerusalem as well as in Judea and Samaria. He still wears a plastic orange bracelet that symbolizes his opposition to Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza.
He would, therefore, want to build everywhere. But professionally, the issue here is not just location or the housing crunch.
Homes also have to be in a desirable location, he says. As such, the need in the South Hebron Hills is not so great, because it is too far from the central ameneties that make up a quality life, such as universities and industries as well as commercial and cultural centers.
“The desirability of certain areas of Judea and Samaria has to do with their location relative to quality-of-life factors,” he says, noting the same is true of the Negev. “If you work in Tel Aviv you will have to travel an hour and a quarter by train, and not everyone wants to do that.”
This is why it is hard to solve the housing crisis without building in Judea and Samaria, he says.
But if one is talking about settlements like Ariel, Betar Illit, Efrat and Alfei Menashe, which are located within a half-hour drive of cities like Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, then everything that is built will be sold.
He looks at the country as a series of desirable circles starting from the most expensive areas, Tel Aviv and Gush Dan, and moving outward.
The second circle is Rosh Ha’ayin and Modi’in, with settlements near the cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the third circle.
“I can have a great, affordable apartment in Arad, but what will I do there?” he asks.
The diplomatic uproar over every rock in Judea and Samaria makes his job more difficult. There is almost a “Pavlovian reaction” in the international community to all Israeli building over the pre-1967 lines, including among the Americans and Europeans.
Netanyahu has, to date, stood firm against such pressure in many cases. Ariel would want him to ignore the US and Europe on this matter altogether.
But aside from issuing sharp statements against US pressure to halt building, at the end of the day, Ariel has little opportunity to influence policy.
His ability to influence future government policies could be decided over the next few months, when negotiations are expected to take place for Tekuma to merge into Bayit Yehudi.
Talks were supposed to begin following last year’s election, but Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett has not pushed them forward.
“For a merger, we need a partner,” he says. “For a year we never got answers from Bennett.”
Ariel warns he could take Tekuma in a different direction, saying that bringing together the former National Union with other right-wing parties remains a possibility, but he has not given up hope.
Speaking of not giving up hope, he also still believes convicted Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard could be released from an American prison.
Ariel headed the Knesset Pollard lobby for years, but would have opposed a plan to release him as a gesture following Israel releasing Palestinian prisoners, had it been brought to a vote.
“What will bring Pollard freedom is the US honoring [president] Bill Clinton’s commitment to Netanyahu at the Wye River Conference [in 1998] to release him,” he says – criticism that undoubtedly will not be looked upon favorably by the Obama administration.
“Continuing to hold him is simply inhumane.”
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.