Settlers hopeful Netanyahu will boost housing construction

Among changes settlers hope to see is a sudden flurry of construction permits, after a dark period under Olmert.

settlement ofra 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
settlement ofra 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert might have spoken fervently about peace with the Palestinians, but in 2008, Palestinians watched workers break slightly more ground for new settlement homes than they did in any single year under his predecessor Ariel Sharon. Nevertheless, settlers still invoke Sharon's name with a sense of reverence when they seek authority to build in their communities. The former prime minister was one of the "fathers" of the settlement movement, and he once told Jews to run to grab hilltops. He banged on tables and told settlers to build. But when it came to actual housing starts and completed construction in Judea and Samaria when he was prime minister, he didn't hold a candle to his predecessor, Labor prime minister Ehud Barak. Although the Labor Party seeks to give up most of the West Bank to the Palestinians, more settlement homes were begun and completed per year under Barak than under either Sharon, Olmert or during Netanyahu's first term. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), in 2000, when Barak led the country and sought his own peace deal with the Palestinians, construction was begun on 4,742 units in Judea and Samaria. In 2002, under Sharon, that number dropped to 1,560. While it did rise somewhat in the next three years - to 2,057 in 2003, 1,988 in 2004 and 1,879 in 2005 - it never came close to Barak's number. Under Olmert, the numbers initially remained low - 1,516 in 2006 and 1,487 in 2007, the lowest in 13 years. But they rose in 2008, when Barak was defense minister instead of Amir Peretz. According to numbers released earlier this month by the CBS, work began on 2,122 apartment units last year. While that is a far cry from Barak's numbers, it is still the most housing starts in Judea and Samaria in any one year since Barak was prime minister. The story differs slightly when one looks at the number of apartment units completed. Barak still holds the record with 3,954 in 2000. But here, Olmert and Sharon were more up to par. Under Sharon, 2,176 apartment units were completed in 2002, 2,376 in 2003, 1,794 in 2004 and 1,759, in 2005. The number of apartment units finished rose at first with Olmert, to 2,171 in 2006, then fell to 1,748 in 2007 and 1,584 in 2008, according to the CBS. Dani Dayan, who heads the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and Gaza said he was happy to see Olmert go. True, he did not break out the champagne when Binyamin Netanyahu was sworn in as prime minister on Tuesday, but he, along with many other settlers, breathed a sigh of relief. They had gone from Olmert, who spoke about returning Israel almost to the pre-1967 lines, to Netanyahu, who has spoken of retaining as much of the West Bank as possible. But history, as exemplified by Sharon's metamorphosis from a champion of the settlement movement to its betrayer, has taught Dayan to be cautious. "We welcome the Netanyahu government," he told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday night. He had high hopes, he said, that this government will return Israel to its true Zionist path, not just by strengthening the settlements, but also in education, security, social solidarity, and immigration and absorption. Among the changes that the settlers hope to see is a sudden flurry of construction permits, after a dark period under Olmert, when very few new projects were authorized. In 2008, he authorized tenders for 447 new housing units, and that was a sharp increase from 2007, when tenders for 65 apartments were issued. The low numbers under Sharon, Dayan said, were deceptive, because he authorized many more projects than Olmert had. Most of the homes that were built when Olmert was in office were authorized under Sharon, Dayan said. He hoped that once in office, Netanyahu would undo the freeze on new permits that had existed under Olmert. Netanyahu's record on construction comes close to rivaling that of Barak, according to the CBS. True, he got off to a slow start, with 2,280 housing starts in 1997 and only 1,960 apartment units completed. But in 1998, work began on 4,350 apartment units and 2,156 were finished. In 1999, when Barak replaced Netanyahu as prime minister in July, work began on 3,147 apartment units and 3,954 were completed. "We believe that [Netanyahu's] government will overturn the policy of freezing construction in Judea and Samaria and renew the normal development of the Jewish communities," Dayan said. Where he is optimistic, Hagit Ofran of the left-wing group Peace Now is fearful. She too believes that Netanyahu is likely to begin a new construction drive in Judea and Samaria, and she fears this would end any hope of peace with the Palestinians. "We are afraid that this government will build much more than all other governments, because of our experience with both Netanyahu and Barak," Ofran said.