Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu owes much gratitude to the Yesha Council and the members of the rightist flank in Likud. Were it not for their public opposition over the past two days, someone might have suspected that the decision to freeze settlement construction permits for 10 months was an even smaller Israeli concession than it originally appeared to be.
There can be no doubt: Under heavy U.S. pressure, Netanyahu crossed an ideological Rubicon from his point of view. The announcement to freeze settlements joins the Bar-Ilan declaration, in which the prime minister agreed to a two-state solution. But in practice, analysis of the situation on the ground suggests that there will be nearly no change in settlement construction, at least not in the coming months.
According to Defense Ministry data, there are currently some 2,500 housing units under construction and contractors are entitled to complete them. The construction of a further 490 units was recently approved in an unusual move by Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Netanyahu's declaration is not catching the settlers by surprise. The government's intentions have been known for five months, and during that time the settlers have stepped up new construction in an effort to get ahead of the restrictions. Hundreds of new housing units are in the process of construction, among other places in Bracha, Yitzhar, Eli, Shilo, Betar Ilit, Elazar, Carmel and Ma'on.
Since in some of the settlements, like Eli, there is no approved master plan, the construction cannot possibly be authorized. While it is true that the Netanyahu government has not been generous in approving plans for construction, mostly in areas far from the separation fence, there is still a significant amount of new construction in the territories.
The best example of this is the prefab home factories that have been set up in different parts of the territories. Because the Civil Administration has been enforcing restrictions on the moving of prefab homes between settlements, these are being set up from within settlements - and thus precious construction time is saved. It is hard to believe that the settlers will accept the decision to freeze construction at this time. Those who set up dozens of illegal outposts will not halt for Netanyahu, especially when many rightists elements ignore the Yesha Council, which they blame for their failed struggle against the disengagement in 2005.
There is also the issue of public buildings. Thursday, in parallel with the order to freeze construction, the Defense Minister authorized the construction of 28 new public buildings in the settlements. This too was a way of appeasing the settler leadership. At a time when private construction is frozen, it is still possible to blow off steam through the authorization of public projects, educational institutions, and synagogues. These meet the basic needs of the settlements, but will also serve as compensation in the eyes of settlers for the construction hiatus.
Keeping an eye on new construction is not especially difficult. Attorney General Menachem Mazuz warned Thursd that there are insufficient numbers of inspectors working for the Civil Administration - only 14. But the defense establishment and many left-wing groups, not to mention the Americans, have sufficient means, technological and otherwise, to paint a cogent picture of what is happening.