(photo credit: AP)
The Americans might be waiting for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to declare a freeze on new Jewish construction in Judea and Samaria, but according to the settlers, such a moratorium has been in place since Netanyahu took office at the end of March.
"Everything is frozen already," Gush Etzion Regional Council head Shaul Goldstein told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
"We hear time and time again that Netanyahu does not accept American demands," said Dani Dayan, chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. The prime minister has said Israel has a right to build to meet the demands of "normal life," but in practice, he has frozen new construction by not issuing permits for new projects, Dayan told the Post.
Based on Netanyahu's campaign promises, Dayan had expected him to authorize new housing. Instead, all the conversations with the government had involved pleas to reverse this undeclared moratorium, he said.
Since taking office, the prime minister has been under pressure from Washington to meet Israel's obligation to "freeze settlement activity," but the exact definition of what that means is now the subject of negotiations between the two governments.
America would like to see existing projects halted, but has shown signs that there is room for their continuation. Israel has insisted it will not choke the settlements, and therefore it will build to meet the demands of normal life there. But in practice it has not issued any new building permits.
Settler leaders, including Dayan, told the Post they did not believe the prime minister would stop the construction of some 2,500 apartment units currently under way.
Some 1,500-2,000 apartment units have been built annually in West Bank settlements for the past eight years.
The only time the government stopped already approved construction in settlements was in the early '90s under prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. He halted all projects in which the first floor had not yet been completed, but allowed the rest to continue.
But back then, Rabin could make that choice, said Dayan, because most apartments were in state-funded projects, whereas now a majority are financed by private enterprise.
MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), a former legal adviser to the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, told the Post that since the settlements were under military administration, the government could still order a halt to existing projects, but it would have to compensate the contractors, investors and buyers.
Dayan said, however, that legally the construction already under way could not be stopped without the passage of legislation in the Knesset.
He and Rotem said even the Americans understood that such a measure would be unwieldy and illogical.
"Freezing what is already being built is a 'spin' and everyone, even [White House chief of staff] Rahm Emanuel, knows it," said Dayan. "Can you imagine the Knesset, with its right-wing tilt [passing the legislation that would have to accompany such a measure]?"
All the talk about stopping existing construction was designed to make it look as if the government had achieved something by getting the US to agree that contractors could complete the work, Dayan said.
Since Netanyahu took office, there have been informal conversations with the Prime Minister's Office in an effort to get it to issue new construction permits, but no formal meetings. As for face-to-face conversations with the prime minister, the settlers have sat down to only one informal talk with Netanyahu since the end of March, sources told the Post.
"There are not enough conversations, not with the prime minister's bureau and not with the prime minister himself. The communication is sporadic and not structured," Dayan said.
Part of the problem, according to Dayan, is that after eight years on the job, Uzi Keren, the settlement adviser in the Prime Minister's Office, is leaving and a replacement has not yet been found.
Ma'aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel said he had spoken with Netanyahu at a faction meeting last month about the freeze on new building permits and planned to meet with a member of his bureau later this week.
Still, despite the anxiety of recent months, in which settlers have lobbied the Prime Minister's Office, cabinet ministers and MKs, Dayan said he believed that at the end of the day, Netanyahu would stand firm against American pressure.
"I cannot conceive that a Likud-led government will freeze construction for long," he said, adding that the longer it continued, the more the country's political forces would gather to oppose it.
"Even the Americans are beginning to understand that their aspirations were too extreme," he said.
In the interim, even though settler leaders have continued to meet monthly with the defense minister's settlement adviser, Eitan Broshi, they have refused to negotiate the issue of the unauthorized outposts until the Prime Minister's Office lifts the moratorium on new building permits.
Dayan said that at Sunday's meeting, he had brought up the fact that the state continually sides with left-wing groups such as Peace Now against the settlers when these groups petition the High Court of Justice on issues of Jewish construction in the West Bank.
"We also talked about the freeze on new permits," said Dayan, but overall the conversation was technical.
On a grassroots level, settlers and right-wing activists have continued to work against American pressure on Israel to freeze settlement activity and to take down 23 outposts built after March 2001.
The Samaria Citizens' Committee has created a new teen council to mobilize a larger body of settler and right-wing teenagers to stop the destruction of the outposts.
At the same time, the Binyamin Citizen's Committee embarked Tuesday on a new poster campaign against American pressure to freeze settlement activity, under the slogan "Obama! Let my people grow." The poster, which was designed by artist Aharon Shevo, has a picture of a child hugging a pregnant woman.
It is a twist on the famous slogan from the "Let my people go!" campaign that was used to help free Jews from the former Soviet Union.