A day after the security cabinet announced a 10-month moratorium on housing starts in the settlements, Defense Minister Ehud Barak moved swiftly on Thursday to order the most dramatic crackdown on Jewish West Bank construction in the history of the settlement movement.
Barak suspended all permits for building projects in the settlements where contractors have not yet broken ground. The order, valid for 10 months, is intended to enforce the Security Cabinet's decision to restrict settler-home building in this period to the 3,000 housing units that are already under construction.
In an apparent "sweetener" to the settlement community, however, Barak also announced the approval of plans to build 28 public buildings, most of them educational facilities needed for the coming school year. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had indicated in announcing the moratorium Wednesday that construction of public buildings, as well as construction in east Jerusalem, would continue.
The Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip held an emergency meeting Thursday during which it set up a campaign to fight the decision. "We see the cabinet resolution as illegitimate, discriminatory and anti-Zionist," said Dani Dayan, who chairs the Council.
While Barak was quickly translating the security cabinet decision into operative steps on the ground, the Foreign Ministry began a campaign to drum up international support for the plan, with Director-General Yossi Gal explaining the decision to representatives of some 60 countries in a briefing at the ministry in Jerusalem.
After spelling out the steps Israel has taken over the last eight months to change the situation on the ground - from removing checkpoints to increasing the hours of operation at the Allenby Bridge - Gal said that Israel expected the international community to "support this far-reaching step," which he said could re-ignite the diplomatic process.
Diplomatic officials said that while reactions to the plan were positive from the US, France and - to a lesser extent - Britain, the reaction from other countries, such as Russia, left much to be desired.
Russia, for instance, said publicly that the decision was not far-reaching enough, and called for a total halt to all settlement construction, including in east Jerusalem.
Gal called on the international community to now encourage the Palestinians to return to negotiations, and to urge the Arab countries to both support the moderates in the Palestinian camp and to take some steps themselves toward Israel to support the diplomatic process.
Barak, meanwhile, said at a closed meeting at his ministry in Tel Aviv, "We are talking about a unilateral step, at the government's initiative, which has been coordinated with the United States, with the intention of advancing the diplomatic process with the Palestinians."
Barak said enforcement of the decision rested with the Defense Ministry, the IDF, the police, the security services and the civil administration.
The settlers' umbrella council on Wednesday had rejected Barak's request for a meeting. "We are completely determined to carry on with our mission to build this land, with the government's help or without it," said Dayan.
Despite the council's refusal to meet with him, Barak, in the meeting at the ministry, said, "We all have an obligation to carry on an open and attentive discussion with the settlement leadership. We are talking about a very serious and responsible group that has demonstrated no small degree of self-restraint during many tests in the past."
At the same time, Barak said that it needed to be clear regarding the settlement freeze that the government meant what it said.
"To all those asking if the diplomatic echelon intends to implement its decision from yesterday, the answer is yes. This is a true test of Israeli democracy," he said.
Once OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Avi Mizrachi signs Barak's order - a move he was set to do late Thursday night or Friday - ground cannot be broken for new construction projects, a Defense Ministry source told The Jerusalem Post.
The only exceptions are the 28 permits Barak issued Thursday for schools and public buildings in Judea and Samaria.
Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, which monitors settlement construction, called the Defense Ministry move "historic." Even late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's temporary moratorium on new construction in the settlements in the early 1990s was not as sweeping as Netanyahu's plan, Ofran said.
Rabin's edict against new construction did not include all the settlements and it was limited to public construction, Ofran said.
As the Israeli government has slowly decreased the number of new permits it issued for settlement construction projects in the last few years, settlers have increasingly relied on a loose loophole by which they could use old permits to expand their community's housing stock.
These permits allowed them to build at a consistent pace - close to 2,000 apartment units annually - even as Netanyahu and former prime minister Ehud Olmert took steps drastically curbing new approvals for settlement building.
Netanyahu's new plan, however, truly could bring settlement construction to a halt, she said.
Now his plan is just for 10 months, but if he extends the timeframe and enforces the edict, once all 3,000 units are built there will in fact be no more construction in the settlements because settlers will not be able to rely on old permits, she said.
At that point the government will have halted settlement construction, said Ofran, who added that she would have wanted Netanyahu to have imposed the same moratorium on east Jerusalem.
On Thursday night the Legal Forum for Israel warned that it intended to file civil suits on behalf of construction contractors who would now seek monetary compensation for lost funds, due to the delay in their projects.
A Defense Ministry source said it assumed that money would indeed now be needed to compensate contractors.
The source noted that a budget had yet to be set for compensation claims or to enforce the new moratorium.
The source warned that until that budget is established, Barak's new orders could not be properly enforced. At present, the source said, there are only 14 Civil Administration inspectors, instead of the 40 that are needed.
Conversations have been ongoing in the Defense Ministry for months on the enforcement steps that would be necessary.
Among the measures under consideration are sanctions against local and regional council heads who continue to permit construction. Restraining orders against settlers involved in illegal construction could also be issued that would bar them from areas of Judea and Samaria.
Earlier Thursday, Likud Minister Yossi Peled told residents of the Efrat settlement that he believed the measures were necessary to jump-start the peace process.
He said settlement construction would resume if the Palestinians refused to come to the negotiation table.
Peled, who has non-voting observer status on the security cabinet, told the Post, "It is very clear that we are freezing [new permits] for 10 months to try and get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table." If the process remains deadlocked, he added, "we will return to regular building."
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, meanwhile, said on a tour of Jordan Valley settlements that the moratorium would prove the settlements had never been an obstacle to peace.
"This is only a limited window of opportunity," Ayalon said. "It will be sufficient to demonstrate whether the Palestinians are serious about peace or just serial excuse-givers."
Ayalon said that the Jordan Valley region was of "great strategic importance" and "should always remain under Israeli control."
Other Likud MKs, including Deputy Coalition chairman Danny Danon, however, are protesting the Netanyahu government's planned settlement construction freeze.
Danon is convening a rally on Saturday night against the freeze. In a statement Friday, MK Danon said he would be joined at the rally by other Likud MKs, heads of Judea and Samaria community councils, Likud party branch heads from around the country, and central Likud party activists.
At the rally Danon will launch a new campaign: "Real Likud Supporters Don't Fold."