Is there really a settlement construction slowdown?

Settlement leaders voice anger, but Netanyahu says new directives allow for considerable flexibility.

A rainbow is seen over the settler outpost of Amona earlier this year (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
A rainbow is seen over the settler outpost of Amona earlier this year
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
THE DECISION this month to approve construction of some 2,000 new homes across the West Bank was greeted with derision by many leaders of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, who interpreted the move as a continuation of what they claim was a de facto building freeze implemented during the administration of Barack Obama.
Among the projects approved by the Civil Administration’s Supreme Planning Council were 102 housing units in Amichai near Shilo – the first time a new settlement has been ap- proved since 1999 – designated for residents who were forced to leave their homes in Amo- na earlier this year after the court ruled that the outpost was built on private Palestinian land.
Other approved construction included 800 units in Ariel, 200 for the Kerem Re’im outpost in the Talmonim bloc, and plans for new homes in Ma’aleh Adumim, Ma’aleh Michmash, Neve Tzuf, Pnei Hever, Einav, Beit El and Kfar Tapuach.
Settler leaders claimed that a detailed break- down of the planning approval revealed that only just over 400 new units would actually be built. Samaria Regional Council Chairman Yossi Dagan responded to the limited approv- al for more homes by suggesting that the Likud replace Benjamin Netanyahu as its leader.
“After eight years, there aren’t any ex- cuses anymore today,” Dagan said. “If this construction freeze truly is approved, and if construction in Judea and Samaria truly is suspended once again, it will be incumbent upon the Likud, as the leader of the national camp—and I write this with great regret— to consider presenting another candidate for prime minister. A candidate who will be committed in deeds and not just in words to the ideology of the national camp in Israel.”
Most settlers had hoped that the election of Donald Trump as US president would herald the dawning of a new era. The initial signs were promising. In contrast to Obama, Trump was reluctant to criticize settlement construction and the issue wasn’t mentioned in the public statements made by the US president when he visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem last month.
Trump, who has vowed to work to achieve the “ultimate” peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, made do with a mild rebuke that he would like to see Israel “hold back on settlements for a little bit” when he met with Netanyahu at the White House in February. The meeting took place shortly after the Washington presidential inauguration ceremony, which was attended by a delegation from the Yesha Settlers’ Council, the umbrella group of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.
BUT THE most encouraging development from the settlers’ point of view was the appointment by Trump of his friend, David Friedman, a New York bankruptcy lawyer, as the new US ambassador to Israel. Fried- man, an outspoken supporter of the settlement enterprise, has run a nonprofit that raises millions of dollars for a yeshiva that also funds several schools and institutions in Beit El, a settlement of 7,000 north of the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Yossi Dagan was not the only settler leader angered by the limited construction approvals. Etzion Bloc Regional Council Chairman Shlomo Neeman asked cabinet ministers not to attend the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the Six- Day War in his council to protest government’s settlement policies.
Hebron Hills Regional Council Chairman Yochai Damri wrote on Facebook: “After eight years of a planning siege that was forced by the Obama administration, in which the construction of some 40,000 housing units in Judea and Samaria was prevented, the political echelon has chosen to continue the freeze and to keep the set- tlements under a planning shutdown while, at the same time, it has raised its hand to vote in support of the construction of some 20,000 housing units for Arabs in Area C.”
Oded Revivi, head of the Yesha Settlers’ Council Foreign Desk, acknowledged the disappointment that expectations for more housing units were not met but preferred to look at the bottle half full.
“On the other hand, we have to under - stand that something extremely unique, if not revolutionary, happened in this decision. After many years of no progress in developing plans we will now have units ready for marketing in the future.”
He blamed the prime minister for raising expectations but rejected Yossi Dagan’s call to replace Netanyahu.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu basically built the expectation that once President Obama is out of office there will be no restraint on building. He definitely has some explaining to do as to what happened to his promises,” he said. “But we remember what happened in the past when the right-wing brought down a right-wing government. We ended up with the Oslo agreements and paid a heavy price for taking a political gamble. We must understand that we cannot always achieve 100 percent of what we want.”
The prime minister responded to the settler criticism by saying no one has done more for the settlement enterprise than him. He promised that he would not bring a “catastrophe” and would not uproot a single community over the 1967 Green Line as part of a future peace deal with the Palestinians.
Following the settler criticism, contacts were held between officials from the Prime Minister’s Office and settler leaders, and it was agreed in principle to build hundreds of additional homes, most of which will be located outside the main settlement blocs.
Addressing the Knesset at an event marking the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, Netanyahu promised that no harm will come to the settlements.
“Alongside our desire to reach an agreement with our Palestinian neighbors, we will continue to protect the settlement enterprise and strengthen it,” Netanyahu said. “We are doing this responsibly and with discretion.”
“No one will be uprooted from his home,” the prime minister vowed. “I am doing what is necessary to protect the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria.... We will continue to develop it, and we will not bring a tragedy upon the settlements, if we agree to work together. This is the most important thing – to work together.”
Alluding to a recent security cabinet decision limiting most new construction to within the boundaries of existing communities, the prime minister explained that the directives allow for considerable flexibility.
We are building “from the inside [of settlements] out,” he said. “This is the rule we decided on. This is something I think that gives us a lot [of leeway].” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman rejected the settlers’ complaints saying he knows better than anyone else the settlement building needs, and he is also aware of the limitations and pressure from abroad. According to Liberman, since the start of the year, more than 8,000 new housing units were approved for construction – more than 3,000 for immediate construction. “Anyone who claims that it was possible to approve more construction in the settlements is not just trying to stretch the rope but to tear it completely, thereby endangering the entire settlement enterprise,” he said. 