Settlements haven’t been in the news of late — and not simply because war pushed them off the media’s radar. They haven’t been in the news because since the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli yeshiva students back in June, there hasn’t been much settlement news to report.
True, already-approved settlement construction continued unabated (and there’s plenty of it). And settlers established several new illegal outposts. And tenders were awarded for new construction in the East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo. So clearly we’re not in the midst of a full-fledged settlement freeze. However, with respect to both the West Bank and East Jerusalem, there is undoubtedly a semi-freeze: no major new settlement plans promoted through planning committees, very few new approvals granted and then for only a tiny number of units, and no new tenders issued.
This is nothing like the 10-month “moratorium” Netanyahu grudgingly negotiated with then-U.S. envoy George Mitchell, during which all sorts of new settlement planning and approvals continued apace, and previously-approved construction went ahead without restraint. And it’s nothing like the settlement “restraint” that Netanyahu disingenuously promised Secretary of State John Kerry in the context of the last U.S.-backed peace effort, which translated to a huge spike in settlement approvals and announcements.
To be clear, a lull in new settlement approvals and announcements under Netanyahu isn’t unprecedented. However, coming on the heels of the collapse of even the pretense of peace talks and Israel’s condemnation of Abbas for forming a reconciliation government approved by Hamas, one would have expected Netanyahu to open the floodgates. Instead, he adopted a policy that, if adopted months earlier, could have given peace talks a chance to survive and even succeed. Why? The most likely explanation is that Netanyahu calculated that at a time when he wanted the world to see the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the most black-and-white terms possible — a peace-seeking democratic nation fighting an irredeemably evil terrorist enemy — he was better off keeping settlements out of the news. And so he did.
It has long been known that Netanyahu has the ability to clamp down on settlement promotions and approvals; what he has consistently lacked is the political will to do so. This summer’s semi-freeze underscores the truth in this observation, as well as the fact that most Israelis remain steadfastly indifferent to the settlement enterprise.
That is the good news. The bad news, as Jerusalem expert Danny Seidemann suggested in his recent analysis (regarding the awarding of tenders for new units in the East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo), is that there is a strong possibility that Netanyahu has promised settler advocates in his Cabinet that once the war is over he will re-open the settlement floodgates. The equally bad news is that, with a battle now raging over who “won” the war, Netanyahu is on the defensive domestically, attacked by his political opponents for failing to crush Hamas (something that was impossible), for failing to re-occupy Gaza (a nightmare scenario for Israel), and for failing to rid Israel of the annoying Gaza problem (something that can’t happen without a peace agreement).
In this context, Netanyahu will undoubtedly be looking for ways to placate his critics and pander to his right-wing base. And when placating and pandering come up on Netanyahu’s agenda, settlement announcements are never far behind.
This is cause for serious concern, and not just because settlements and their expansion are anathema to any negotiated two-state solution. Something even bigger is at stake today. As Seidemann — whose prescience is as legendary as it is often depressing — aptly noted (in analysis that applies equally to the West Bank):
The impact of renewed settlement activities will be even more devastating than in the past. We now know that Hamas has succeeded in getting Netanyahu to freeze Jerusalem settlement expansion — something Netanyahu refused to do for Abbas or for the sake of negotiation. If East Jerusalem settlement construction starts up again, Hamas will be able to say, with reason, ‘we were able to get a settlement freeze in Jerusalem through armed resistance, something Abbas was unable to get through negotiations.’
Make no mistake: If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, it will be a slap in the face to Abbas, a Palestinian leader who still rejects violence and endorses a negotiated agreement, and a middle finger to the United States, Israel’s best friend and chief benefactor. And if he does so, he will take Israel further down the path toward international pariah status, fueling BDS and anti-Israel activism and further guaranteeing Palestinian recourse to international legal forums.
Perhaps worst of all, at least from the viewpoint of Israelis who have just endured almost two months of rocket attacks, if Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas — and groups even more extreme than Hamas — that the only language Israel understands is violence.
This article first appeared in The Forward on August 28, 2014.