In light of the Palestinians' acceptance of a land swap, the battle over the construction freeze in the settlements is not a struggle for their very existence, since most of them and their residents will be annexed to Israel in any agreement. The battle over the construction freeze is a battle for perception in Israel and abroad - between Greater Israel on the one hand and two states for two peoples on the other. So this battle is important for the existence of the diplomatic process.
Those who favor a Greater Israel have discovered that the assessment by former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir that half a million Israelis in the territories are enough to create an irreversible reality is not coming true. They have discovered that international opinion does not consider the West Bank part of Israel.
In addition, Israel showed that in exchange for peace with Egypt it could evacuate settlements. Those who favor a Greater Israel also understand that another outpost and another neighborhood will not change the West Bank's demographic balance. But they are convinced that as long as the construction process continues, the situation on the ground reduces the chance of dividing the country.
The defense minister has refused to recognize that. He used to justify granting building permits in the territories by saying it makes no difference where and how much construction goes on because the moment the border is agreed on, everyone will know the law. But if Menachem Begin froze construction before the peace treaty with Egypt, the same should be done after negotiations have gone on for 17 years and the number of Israelis living outside the settlement blocs has grown from 20,000 to 120,000.
Another declaration by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about a freeze, if it comes, will be more meaningful than Yitzhak Rabin's declaration in 1992 about "drying up" the settlements. At the time the subject was a change in national priorities, without mentioning a Palestinian state. Last year, when the Americans proposed building only in the settlement blocs, Netanyahu refused. He included United Torah Judaism and Shas voters in Beitar Ilit and Modi'in Ilit in the freeze to guarantee that those parties would also apply pressure for a renewal of construction in the West Bank, counter-pressure to the American pressure.
But now the "blocs" compromise means Netanyahu will be forced to turn the settlement enterprise, whose goal is to create a reality and perception of one state, into one that serves the idea of two states by determining a de facto border for Israel between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
Is Netanyahu blind to the light that ministers Ehud Barak, Dan Meridor, Michael Eitan and others have been able to see: that the settlement enterprise, which has expanded by 200,000 people since the Oslo Accords, is leading to a situation where more Israelis prefer no negotiations for fear of a civil war? That ever more people prefer democracy for Jews only, even if the world calls it apartheid? That more people sanctify settlement everywhere in the country, even if the result is a state with an Arab majority? That more Palestinians believe that their willingness to make do with a state in only part of Palestine is not relevant because we are trying to "Judaicize" that part too? That more Palestinians are convinced that the diplomatic path has failed and that the idea of resistance will reunify the Palestinians? That more people in the world believe that Israel is a factor harming regional and world stability and are questioning its legitimacy?
Netanyahu must realize that declarations and deeds are intertwined, in an honest attempt to achieve a solution. There is no point in dreaming about peace without creating the conditions for achieving it.
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