Yakir settlement
Construction in the settlement of Yakir, near Ariel. Photo by Moti Milrod
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The following sign was recently placed on the descent - which is blocked with boulders - from Highway 443 to a Palestinian village: "Israeli, take note - if you have reached this point, you made a mistake!"

But the highway that connects Jerusalem and Modi'in - and where Palestinian vehicles are still as scarce as water in the desert, even after the Israel Defense Forces allowed them to use part of it - is only a symptom. The combination of zero diplomatic activity and ideological radicalization in several neighboring countries has heightened the potential for a military escalation. Military Intelligence does not believe Syria, Hezbollah or Hamas has a salient interest in launching a war against Israel. In this sense, the deterrence Israel achieved via its fierce attacks in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza at the end of 2008 is still felt. However, the danger has increased that misunderstandings in this volatile region will eventually spark a conflagration.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is aware of this danger, this week paid another visit to the United States in an effort to improve the strained relations between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration. As Haaretz reported last week, Barak is now pressuring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to advance a new diplomatic initiative regarding the Palestinians. At the same time, there are additional reports about attempts to bring Kadima into the coalition.

In midweek, Netanyahu's adviser Uzi Arad urged caution and warned against political adventurism. The prime minister himself explained that Israel is under attack by people seeking to delegitimize it and argued, with some justification, that a new political initiative will not be enough to stymie this.

The Netanyahu-Barak government has not been able to garner much patience or empathy in the international arena, although the Americans have at least been polite. And the sharp reaction in Europe to the interception of the Gaza flotilla is more than a function of the event itself: Israel's isolation in the world, just like its severe crisis with Turkey, predates the flotilla.

The IDF is gradually coming around to the recognition that it blundered in the flotilla operation, despite the general citation that the chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, awarded the naval commandos this week for earlier secret operations. (A modicum of sensitivity would have postponed the ceremony until the committee headed by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland submits its findings about the flotilla incident. ) The Eiland panel, which this week began hearing testimony from people involved in planning the operation, also knows this.

Indeed, even Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, which left hundreds of civilians dead, did not generate such intense hostility. Immediately after that operation, a number of foreign leaders visited Israel to demonstrate support for the prime minister, Ehud Olmert (by the time of the Goldstone report, the Netanyahu government was already in office ). Olmert had one advantage over his successor: His talks involving both Syria and the Palestinians created a semblance of diplomatic movement, even if in practice his unpopularity meant he had no public mandate to make concrete progress.

Under Netanyahu, the proximity talks with the Palestinians will lead nowhere. Indeed, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Wednesday that construction in the territories will resume as soon as the freeze expires, at the end of September. In the face of pressure from Lieberman, the settlers and above all Likud's far right wing, the prime minister will have trouble announcing an extension of the construction moratorium. On the other hand, ending it will get him in trouble with the White House.

In the absence of a solution, a compromise is being sought to enable Netanyahu to have it both ways. This may even entail changing the coalition - though Jerusalem is still carefully keeping an eye on political developments in Washington.

The hope in the Prime Minister's Bureau is that the Republicans will foment a small miracle in the midterm elections this November, after which President Obama will lose his appetite for another public clash with Israel. Even now, Obama has plenty of problems, the latest of which is his dismissal of the commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Until it becomes clear which way the wind is blowing, Netanyahu will probably not make a decision: He only does so when a pistol is pointed at his forehead, which is the way he likes it - as he showed again this week when he was forced to ease the Gaza blockade in the wake of the botched flotilla raid.

Melting freeze

This month, the forum of former Golani infantry brigade commanders (without Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who is still in active service ) toured the settlements. The group was surprised to discover that the West Bank construction freeze looks different on the ground than it does in the media. At a site in one big settlement bloc, the retired officers saw massive construction. The local council head explained that the freeze had indeed stalled many projects in the planning stages, but that anyone who had laid foundations before the moratorium took effect was continuing to build intensely. "We haven't had such a building boom for years," he admitted.

Netanyahu's announcement of the construction freeze was declarative. And one also can't ignore the immense difficulty the decision caused for hundreds of families, who found themselves paying for homes on paper. But a tour of a dozen settlements and outposts this week, as well as data from other settlements, shows the freeze is a typical Israeli stunt.

Benny Begin, a member of the ministerial forum of seven and a man of integrity, was the only one who promised a few months ago in public that "at the end of the freeze there will be more than 10,000 additional Jews in Judea and Samaria." He was not referring to natural population growth.

The enforcement of the freeze is orderly. The GOC Central Command, Avi Mizrahi, and the head of the Civil Administration, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, have the area regularly photographed from the air. So far, more than 400 stop-work orders have been issued, and in some cases equipment has been confiscated. It's also true that no new outposts have been established in recent years, because the IDF has been quick to abort every such attempt. The members of the Civil Administration inspection unit, most of whom are settlers, suffer incessant harassment from their neighbors for helping to enforce the freeze. But the full picture is more complex, and is still a function of what happened in the months that preceded the construction freeze.

The decision on the freeze was delayed for a few months, during which Netanyahu's aides intimated to the settlers that time was running out and they should take advantage of it. Work on buildings that had foundations when the construction freeze took effect last November was allowed to continue. There are about 2,500 such buildings. The Civil Administration also does not intervene in cases where homes were built illegally, without master plans.

There was also a technical delay that helped the settlers: An effort to document the situation on the ground with photographs, scheduled for the day the order went into effect, was unsuccessful. It took two weeks to reorganize the mission, a period that was exploited well. On the eve of the freeze, Barak, in an unusual step, approved the construction of 490 homes in a few settlements as well as some work on public buildings. Furthermore, because the focus is on the established settlements, the Civil Administration is paying less attention to the outposts - where construction has continued during the freeze.

Last December, in a significant move, the defense establishment lifted the ban on planning during the freeze; the earlier interpretation had been too strict, it was argued. The West Bank local councils are hard at work, and as soon as the freeze is over, they will have plans ready to allow construction of thousands of new homes.

According to Brig. Gen. (res. ) Ilan Paz, a member of the Council for Peace and Security and a former head of the Civil Administration, "Netanyahu hurt the settlers in the short term, but in return gave them some real assets for the longer term. The practical result is that construction is continuing despite the freeze and preparations have been made for even more massive construction as soon as it ends."

A random sampling of construction this week, most of it done on pre-freeze foundations, revealed building in sites in Har Bracha, Yitzhar, Tapuah and Itamar, all in the Nablus area; dozens of homes in Yakir, near Qalqilyah; in about 20 homes in Ma'aleh Mikhmash, east of Ramallah; in Dolev, Nili and Na'aleh, west of Ramallah; dozens of homes in Kedar, near Ma'aleh Adumim; and also in Modi'in Ilit, Betar Ilit, Kfar Etzion, Rosh Tzurim and Elazar in the Etzion Bloc south of Bethlehem.

A senior Defense Ministry source responded that the freeze has been properly enforced. "The majority of the settlements respect the law and are implementing it," he said. "We are engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the heads of the local authorities and we are trying to show consideration for community needs. We approved a few dozen homes during the freeze in exceptional cases that required consideration for buyers' distress. Other than that, what you see on the ground is construction on foundations that were laid earlier, and I don't think there is a large or unusual number of those."

The temperature in the West Bank reached 40 degrees Celsius this week. Maybe it's only the weather, but it looks like the freeze is slowly melting.