Bibi's Settlement Restraint


by Lara Friedman

People keep asking me: "Have you seen the news? Has Bibi actually frozen settlements? What does this mean?"

"This" refers to news that Prime Minister Netanyahu at some point in the recent past (it's not clear precisely when) instructed his Minister of Construction, Uri Ariel, to hold off on promoting new settlement plans. And "this" also refers to the confirmation issued by my colleagues at Peace Now, to the effect that in the wake of President Obama's March visit to Israel and the West Bank, there have been no new tenders issued for settlement construction and no new approvals of settlement construction plans.

So has Bibi frozen settlements? Categorically not.

As Peace Now has documented, settlement construction in the West Bank continues apace--as in, at the same fast clip as before the Obama visit. How is this possible? Because Netanyahu and his previous government went on a settlement binge in the period before the Obama visit. Peace Now documented that during the period between the January 22 elections in Israel and the March 18 swearing in of the new government, plans were advanced for the approval of more than 1,500 new settlement housing units, many in isolated areas of the West Bank.

So what does this non-freeze mean?

Back in January, with Obama re-elected, Bibi had every interest in ensuring that he could both continue expanding settlements and present himself and his new government as a serious, constructive partner for the new Obama administration. And that is precisely what is transpiring today, as Bibi lets it be known that he is holding back the settlement surge.

However, this period of "restraint" almost certainly won't last. Netanyahu has assembled the most pro-settler cabinet in Israel's history. It is a safe bet that Netanyahu has privately assured Ariel and others that, if they will just keep quiet and play ball for a short time, the settlement floodgates will re-open soon, perhaps even wider than before. This analysis is bolstered by the fact that Ariel and other settler advocates have held back on criticizing Netanyahu for his settlement "restraint." No doubt, Bibi will offer what he believes are compelling arguments for opening the settlement floodgates. He will likely blame the Palestinians, portraying himself as the pro-peace actor who has gone out on a limb, only to be treated shabbily by the Palestinian side. He will almost certainly return to the tried-and-true tactic of pleading politics, arguing that he is constrained by the exigencies of keeping his own government together--and the unreasonableness of asking any national leader to adopt policies that are akin to political suicide.

Bibi's inevitable, impending decision to re-open the settlement floodgates promises to be a decisive test for the second Obama Administration. The past 3-plus years were characterized by the most destructive U.S.-Israel dynamic on settlements since 1967--a dynamic in which the Israeli Prime Minister came to believe, with good reason, that there was no cost and were no consequences to giving the U.S. the finger when it came to settlement construction. The result was the crossing of settlement red lines that no previous Israeli government dared cross and a deepening of the settlement enterprise to a degree that challenges the credibility and viability of the two-state solution. The result, too, was the weakening of the credibility of U.S. policy and U.S. leadership in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not to mention the undermining of pro-peace, pro-two-state solution Palestinian leaders, like Salam Fayyad.

All that being said, and while not ignoring the fact that settlement construction continues apace, this restraint on new settlement tenders and approvals is a good thing. It creates political space for Kerry to try to get something going in terms of re-establishing a political horizon. While Bibi is likely hoping that Kerry's efforts will not get any traction, it is possible that Bibi will find himself pressured and cornered if Kerry succeeds in catalyzing a new political process that gains a life of its own.

Moreover, Bibi's current policy of "restraint" proves that, regardless of all the excuses, if he wants to hold back settlements, he can. He's doing it now and he did it four years ago with the infamous "moratorium"--a moratorium which, while officially limited to the West Bank, was actually quietly extended to East Jerusalem. Four years ago, Bibi's "restraint" on settlements didn't result in mass demonstrations or bring down his government; the same is true today.

Bibi can restrain settlement construction--both in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. We know he can because he's done so. The questions, then, are: how long will he keep up this "restraint," and what will be the reaction of Washington when he re-opens the settlement floodgates?

This article first appeared on May 8, 2013, on Open Zion at the Daily Beast.