A Palestinian laborer works on a construction site in the new Palestinian town dubbed Rawabi or "The Hills", near the West Bank city of Ramallah.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When they raise their hands in the cabinet, do our ministers know what they are voting on? Are they misled by professionals and unelected officials? Or do they feign ignorance on unpopular votes to avoid the rancor of their constituents? The answers are unclear in the wake of a controversy surrounding a cabinet vote last September that okayed expansion of Palestinians villages to accommodate natural growth.
At the time, about half of the ministers that make up the cabinet (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Interior Minister Arye Deri, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Housing Minister Yoav Galant and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon) voted in favor of removing some restrictions on Palestinian building, including in areas in Judea and Samaria under full Israeli control (Area C).
Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked voted against.
The plans were formulated by Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories head Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai at the request of Liberman as part of a “carrots and sticks” tactic that Liberman is trying to adopt with the Palestinians. Re-zoning and building plans for several Palestinian villages were central to Liberman’s vision. A number of villages in the northern West Bank – including Kalkilya – were given permission to expand outside present borders, even if the expansion was into areas controlled by Israel. Plans to build on land around Kalkilya that enabled the building of 14,000 units was given a green light.
In addition, plans were approved for an economic corridor to connect Jordan and Jericho; an industrial park west of Nablus; and a hospital in Beit Sahur, adjacent to Bethlehem. In addition, the ministers permitted the building of soccer fields and preschools. It was the first time in years that Israel had recognized Palestinians’ need to accommodate for natural growth and allowed Palestinians to expand into Area C, which makes up about 60% of the West Bank.
The program was reportedly presented in full detail to the cabinet before the vote. And though many ministers were absent from the vote, we would like to believe that all members of the cabinet knew about the plans. Perhaps a few Likud ministers knew so well what was in the plans that they conveniently found something else to do, so as not to be forced to make a vote that would arouse the rancor of right-wing constituents.
Now, nine months later, a strong pro-settlement lobby is putting pressure on Netanyahu and Likud ministers to rescind that vote. On Sunday, Netanyahu claimed during a meeting with coalition heads that he did not remember the expansion of Kalkilya was part of Liberman’s plan.
And on Monday, the Prime Minister’s Office claimed the cabinet had been misled by Liberman on the vote and was not provided with all necessary information.
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who was abroad when the cabinet voted last September, put the blame for the “misunderstanding” on Mordechai. Elkin told Makor Rishon last week that Mordechai had purposely hidden details of Liberman’s plan “in order to create a new reality behind the back of the political echelon.”
Other ministers – such as Transportation Minister Israel Katz who, like Elkin, was not present at the September meeting – say they have no recollection of a cabinet decision permitting Palestinian building.
Were our political leaders overcome with a bout of collective amnesia? What seems more likely is that no Likud minister – including the prime minister – is willing to publicly support even the most modest loosening of restrictions on building for Palestinians.
But why? To the best of our knowledge, there is no political party in the coalition that advocates the transfer of Palestinians. For better or for worse, Israelis and Palestinians are going to have to learn to share the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Israel will have to accept that the Palestinian population on the West Bank is growing and that Palestinian villages, towns and cities must be allowed to accommodate natural population growth, just as Israeli towns should be allowed in Judea and Samaria.
Refusing to recognize this simple fact might endear you to the strong right-wing lobby in the Likud, but it ignores reality.