In my blog post from June 2, I showed how construction in Israel’s West Bank settlements had slowed, but that the media had failed to report it.
Ironically, Peace Now’s politicised campaign has been fuelled by the actions of certain pro-settler elements in the Israeli government that are seen as being responsible for the housing planning “approval” announcements. Like Peace Now, but for opposite reasons, these political forces have an interest in overstating the actual amount of construction that is taking place in the settlements (even to the point of marketing a planned neighbourhood inside an existing settlement as though it were a new settlement itself, as in the case of the Leshem neighbourhood of the settlement Alei Zahav last year). Perhaps they do this because they wish to impress their pro-settlement constituents with the extent of their political “achievements” in government.
The important thing to realise, however, permission to break ground on a new home in the settlements is not in the hands of one political party or even the Housing Minister or Defence Minister, but in the cabinet and Prime Minster themselves.
This month, two pieces of commentary by former Bush Administration deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams – who was the official in charge of monitoring Israel’s settlement policies – reinforced some of the very same points I made.
On June 18, in an article on the website for Foreign Affairs magazine co-written with Uri Sadot, titled “Facts on the Ground: the Israeli Settlement Slowdown, Abrams and Sadot wrote:
Under Netanyahu’s current government, construction outside the so-called major settlement blocs – the areas most likely to remain part of Israel in a final peace settlement – has steadily decreased. Over the past five years, the number of homes approved for construction in the smaller settlements has amounted to half of what it was during Netanyahu’s first premiership in 1996-99. Moreover, the homes the government is now approving for construction are positioned further west, mostly in the major blocs or in areas adjacent to the so-called Green Line, the de facto border separating Israel from the West Bank. The 1,500 units that Israel announced plans for earlier this month were also in the major blocs and in East Jerusalem, continuing the pattern…
Israeli construction is now concentrated in Jerusalem and the major blocs – in the two percent of the West Bank territory that the Palestinian leadership was apparently willing to accept as Israeli in 2008.
When his claims came under attack from a Peace Now official for ignoring the Israeli government’s “promoted plans and tenders” that they said showed “aggressive settlement policy”, Abrams fired back yesterday with a blog post “Strange Bedfellows…on Israeli Settlement Policy” on the website for the Council on Foreign Relations, which brought up another key point raised in my blog post – most importantly that the misleading phenomenon of “planning announcements” regarding settlement activity by members of the Israeli government, may not lead to any construction at all. Abrams also identified the fact that both pro-settler and anti-settler groups have an interest in making meaningless announcements seem more important than they are.
Planning of new units is often irrelevant, and in some cases a bluff. Looking at the bottom line of construction starts is what really matters, and here’s why: In Israel, the prime minister is far from having absolute power over his government, which means a rogue housing minister from a rival political party can announce planning stages all he wants – and there’s nothing the prime minister can do about it. The actual approval of a construction project, however, has to go through an interagency planning committee, which is ultimately controlled by the Ministry of Interior, currently under Likud. Failure to understand this basic feature of Israeli governance structures is probably why Friedman’s analysis is so far off target. Note Tzipi Livni’s recent accusations against “arsonist” ministers inside the coalition who announced a host of construction plans only in order to scuttle negotiations with the Palestinians. Often, those plans do not actually materialize. The irony here is that many in the media and NGO world are so keen on blaming Israel for its settlement policy that they treat political bluffs and hyped announcements as facts, thereby actually empowering those who push for settlement expansion.
Abrams’ full blog post can be read here.