Israel’s Right genuinely believed things would be different. After Donald Trump was elected president last November, it broke out in ecstatic celebration.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett declared that with the election of Trump, the era of the two-state solution had come to an end. Likud Minister Ofir Akunis called for an immediate and massive boom in settlement construction, while other politicians on the Right started drafting legislation to annex parts of the West Bank. It seemed that the days of “not one more brick” – as Barack Obama famously demanded of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009 in their first discussion on settlements – had finally come to an end.
But nine months into Trump’s term as president, the facts on the ground show that nothing has really changed. Yes, the tension is not there, and the near-weekly condemnations of Israel at the State Department have disappeared, but, for the settler camp, the reality is the same.
Construction is pretty much frozen.
The announcement last week that Israel will build 3,800 homes in Judea and Samaria turned out to be a fabrication and a pumped-up number meant to achieve one goal: appease Netanyahu’s right-wing base.
In reality, only a few hundred homes will be built, while the other few thousand will just move through another phase in the planning and authorization process. It will take a long time before any ground is broken for these homes. Each stage requires its own “green light” from the government, which means that the bulk of the 3,800 homes have a long way to go.
The homes that are actually being built are ones that Netanyahu had no choice but to approve. New homes for the evacuees from the illegal outposts of Amona and Migron were needed by Netanyahu to stave off political pressure. Had he stalled any longer, it would have caused him a greater headache than any diplomatic tension with the White House. A couple of hundred more homes are expected to be built in the traditional settlement blocs, with the one real exception being Hebron, where 31 units were approved for construction.
One settler leader who met recently with Netanyahu told me it was unclear if the limitations are being ordered by the Americans or are self-imposed by the prime minister.
At a meeting that heads of the Yesha Council had with the prime minister in June, Netanyahu seemed surprised when the settler leaders complained about the pace of construction. He told them that he did not know things were moving so slowly, and that construction would not be limited to the blocs. New homes, he said at the time, would be built even in some of the more isolated communities.
But then a few months went by and nothing changed. At the settler leaders’ most recent meeting with Netanyahu a few weeks ago, one of the prime minister’s aides said that the Americans had told Israel: “You can be a pig but not a chazir [Yiddish for pig/glutton – Y.K.].” It’s not clear who on the American side made the statement and exactly what it meant.
Some interpreted it to mean that while there were some limitations on construction, there was also some room for flexibility. Others understood it to mean that the Americans don’t want any construction at all.
There were some members of the Yesha Council leaders who wanted to skip the September meeting, since they believed that by attending it they were legitimizing Netanyahu’s continued settlement freeze. In the end, though, most of them showed up and got the impression that Washington has left Netanyahu with little leeway.
“He doesn’t want to upset the Americans even though they haven’t told him what the number is of new homes that will upset them,” one of the participants at the recent meeting said. “It’s a balancing act in which it seems that Netanyahu is imposing restrictions on himself.”
The American restrictions are interesting to consider since it’s anyhow unclear what Trump’s plan is for Israel and the Palestinians. Jason Greenblatt, who has spent the last month in Israel, is said to be something of a micro manager who refuses to let anything move ahead in the West Bank without his approval. This pertains to projects like new industrial zones that the settler leaders wanted to advance, and to other initiatives that would be jointly beneficial for Jewish and Palestinian residents.
The Americans, it seems, don’t want initiatives until they unveil their master plan. What is their master plan? No one really knows yet.
All of this explains why in recent weeks the taboo on criticizing Trump among Israeli ministers has suddenly been lifted. Likud Minister Ze’ev Elkin was the first to blast the US president for continuing to refuse to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem despite promising to do so during the campaign. Other top Likud figures, like Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, have followed in Elkin’s footsteps.
All of this creates trouble for Netanyahu.
On the one hand, the prime minister needs Trump to keep up the pressure on Iran following his decision to decertify the nuclear deal – a deal Netanyahu views to be of greater strategic significance than a few more homes on the hills of Judea and Samaria. On the other hand, as the police investigations against the prime minister continue, he needs political quiet and to keep all distractions, even settlement construction, out of sight and out of mind.
My wife Chaya’s parents live in the Old City of Jerusalem, and during the holiday season – from Rosh Hashana until the end of Sukkot – we are there quite a bit for family meals.
Over the years, every time I walked into the Old City I got frustrated. The Arab Shuk, which I walked through last Saturday, is almost always packed with tourists, many from around the world, but also a large number of Israelis. But when I enter the Jewish Quarter, it is almost always empty.
The reason is simple. The days off in Israel are Saturdays and Jewish holidays so for secular Jewish-Israelis, that is the one day they have the opportunity to tour the Old City.
When they get there however, there is nothing to do or see in the Jewish Quarter. Everything is closed – the Kotel Tunnels, the Burnt House, the Cardo, the Hurva Synagogue, the Herodian Quarter. Nothing is open.
The same applies to restaurants and cafes. In the Muslim and Christian Quarters everything is open, but in the Jewish Quarter everything is closed. Even the one ATM there doesn’t work if someone passing by wants to take out cash.
Go down to the Western Wall, which is the one attraction open, and the religious coercion continues.
There, even if you are a tourist, you will be asked to stop taking pictures of the Kotel. Ushers will tell you that it is forbidden to take photos on Shabbat or Jewish holidays.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the Kotel, has no problem employing non-Jews on Shabbat so they can operate the site.
So why would they care if someone takes a photo? The hypocrisy screams to heaven.
All of this is a tragic mistake. Until a few years ago, half of the soldiers being drafted into the IDF had not visited the Kotel. So why is more not being done to connect people to Jerusalem and its holy sites? With some creative thinking, the opportunities are endless. Museums could sell tickets before Shabbat, or alternatively hold free tours on Saturday and holidays. Some restaurants should be allowed to remain open, and ushers at the Kotel need to be told to stop commenting on the length of young girls’ skirts and instead focus on helping them find a prayer book or a seat near the wall.
It’s time to make Judaism more user-friendly. It’s time to liberate the Jewish Quarter once again.