Has Netanyahu been boom or bust for Israel's West Bank settlement enterprise?

In a last-ditch appeal for right-wing votes, it’s no accident that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose Jewish east Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood as the backdrop.

March 17, 2015 01:07
Benjamin Netanyahu

Netanyahu delivers a statement in Har Homa. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In a last-ditch appeal for right-wing votes, it’s no accident that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose Jewish east Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood as the backdrop for one of his final campaign stops before Tuesday’s election.

The large multistory apartment buildings jutting out behind him on the sunny, chilly spring day were a subtle reminder that Netanyahu is a builder of Jewish homes over the Green Line, especially in Jerusalem, and can stand firm against the US when it comes to such construction.

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When he became prime minister for the first time in 1996, just sand dunes and barren brown hilltops marked the city’s southern border and the adjacent Palestinian city of Bethlehem.

It was Netanyahu who approved the new Har Homa neighborhood, against US objections. Today its 20,000 Jewish residents serve as a protective figurative wall that breaks the territorial continuity between east Jerusalem neighborhoods and Bethlehem, designed to help ensure that portions of the city over the Green Line can never be carved out and handed to the Palestinians. Back in 1997, people imagined Netanyahu would prevent a Palestinian state, given that he had been one of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s chief political foes, particularly with respect to the Oslo process.

During a public debate on Israel while working in Boston at age 28, Netanyahu rejected the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, noting that such a state already existed in Jordan.

“There is no right to establish a second one on my doorstep, which will threaten my existence, there is no right whatsoever,” Netanyahu said.

But while he was prime minister from 1996-1999, he did not reject the Oslo Accords, which set out a blueprint for a two-state solution, although he later said he worked to undermine them on the ground. He also divided Hebron and handed the bulk of the city to the Palestinian Authority in 1997.

As the finance minister under former prime minister Ariel Sharon a decade ago, he voted three times in favor of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza before he quit the government in protest.

When he reentered the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009, however, he veered left. In June 2009, at Bar-Ilan University, he affirmed the principle of two states for two people, and called on the Palestinians to immediately resume negotiations to achieve that goal.

To help spark those talks, he imposed a 10-month moratorium on settler housing starts in West Bank settlements from November 2009 through September 2010.

For his first two years in office, Netanyahu didn’t publish any housing tenders for West Bank settlements and only 170 tenders for east Jerusalem in 2009, compared to 966 the previous year under former prime minister Ehud Olmert. But after two years, Netanyahu changed his tune with regard to building over the pre-1967 lines, first in response to the terrorist attack in the Itamar settlement in which five members of the Fogel family were killed, and second in response to Palestinian unilateral statehood moves at the UN and to offset Palestinian prisoner releases during the brief renewal of US-led negotiations with the Palestinians in 2013. Overall, in the last six years under his leadership, tenders for east Jerusalem Jewish building doubled, according to Peace Now data, when compared to the previous six. But in the West Bank in the last 12 years, the number of tenders published for settlement building remained about same.

CBS data on actual building under Netanyahu showed that housing starts in West Bank settlements dropped 19 percent and the number of finished settler homes fell 15% when compared with 2003 to 2008.

Moreover, no tenders have been published for Jewish east Jerusalem homes since last May. Construction Ministry officials, under the Bayit Yehudi party, blame Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s major mark on the settlements was not in building, however, but in the legalization of land for construction. True he did not authorize the Levy report, which presented a plan to legalize some 100 unauthorized West Bank outposts. Nor did he support legislation that would have achieved that same effect. But in east Jerusalem in the fall, the Jerusalem Municipality finalized plans for 2,610 homes in a new Jewish neighborhood next to Har Homa, called Givat Hamatos. Tenders have yet to be published for the project.

Similarly, under Netanyahu the IDF completed a survey of 400 hectares whose ownership was uncertain and named it state land at the end of August to pave the way for the eventual construction of a new Jewish city.

More significantly, Netanyahu changed the entire way Israel approached the issue of West Bank outposts by removing them from the diplomatic dialogue and transforming them, instead, into an Israeli legal issue.

In 2009, the expectation was that these fledgling communities would be evacuated. Under Netanyahu the push is to legalize those located on state land or on property that could be reclassified as state land. Separately, Netanyahu has worked to relocate those built on private Palestinian property to suitable nearby legal property.

According to a study by Peace Now, Netanyahu has authorized 16 outposts, transforming them into legal neighborhoods of existing settlements. In addition, he changed three of the outposts into new settlements, marking the first time new legal Jewish West Bank communities have been authorized in more than a decade.

When Netanyahu stood in Har Homa and promised more building, he sounded like he planned to pick up on his growing trend of strengthening Jewish building over the Green Line. He even told NRG that should he become prime minister for a fourth term, there would not be a Palestinian state while he was in office.

But, should he win and once the furor of elections is over, he will have to face down the US on the issue, as well as increasing pressure from the international community.

His concern will not be right-wing votes but the country’s diplomatic and security horizon. His predecessor Ariel Sharon campaigned in 2002 for the settler vote by promising not to sacrifice the Gaza settlements.

“The fate of Netzarim [a former Gaza settlement] is the fate of Tel Aviv,” he famously said.

But once he reentered office, he wryly noted that “what you see from here, you do not see from there.”

With Netanyahu’s checkered history, voters heading to the polls Tuesday,will have to gamble that what they see as best for Israel’s future is the same vision Netanyahu sees from a window in the Prime Minister’s Office.

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