Analysis

Israel's Most Right-wing Cabinet Ever Curbs Settlement Construction - but the Settlers Keep Mum

Instead of taking to the streets and setting Twitter on fire, settlers make do with apologetics and spin ■ The vagueness of the new policy gives Netanyahu some leeway, but also has its hazards.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett.
Moti Milrod

It was not for nothing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu picked Thursday to convene the security cabinet for a discussion of the contacts with the United States on curbs to settlement construction. His ministers were tired and worn out after the work week, the Friday newspapers were about to go to press and the political system had already geared down ahead of the weekend. After all, timing is everything in life.

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The Prime Minister's Office made sure to hold the vote on the establishment of a new settlement for the evacuees of the illegal outpost of Amona early in the meeting. That way, they had time enough to issue a press release that would shape a convenient narrative for Netanyahu in the morning's front pages.

As for the decisions that were less politically comfortable for Netanyahu, those were released to the press only at 1:30 A.M., after the papers had gone to press.

When the settlers and their supporters woke up, they discovered that while they slept, Netanyahu and the members of the most right-wing security cabinet in Israeli history decided to voluntarily impose limitations on construction in the settlements. True, there is a major change from the Obama administration's hostile attitude to the settlements, but considering the fact that the Israeli government is under the full control of the settler lobby, and given the fact that the White House is now home to Donald Trump and the U.S. Congress is completely in the hands of the GOP - the decision by the security cabinet was no less than astonishing.

No less amazing was the response of the Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements, which did not include even a word of criticism concerning the fact that Netanyahu, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and their colleagues imposed significant restrictions on construction in the settlements.

The only way to describe this is Right-mageddon. Make no mistake, if the opposition's Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni were in power and had taken similar steps, all the supporters of the settlements would have taken to the streets and the settler lobby in the media would have set Twitter on fire. Instead, we received apologetic explanations and spin. The only person who was decent enough to admit to reality was MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi). "Voluntary blindness," he called it on Twitter on Friday morning.

At the end of the security cabinet meeting Thursday night, it turned out that all the celebrations, hopes and expectations of the right that Trump would be the Messiah heralding the vision of the "Greater Land of Israel" had shattered against reality. The declarations of his election campaign have turned out to be empty, their hope that the U.S. Embassy would move to Jerusalem on his first day in office were proven false and their dreams of annexing the West Bank were buried. It turns out that the actions of Trump's administration on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and especially on the matter of construction in the settlements, were a real strategic surprise for the right.

Not on Trump's watch

The security cabinet decision to rein in construction in the West Bank and the justifications Netanyahu used to convince his ministers to agree to it, made it clear that even in the Trump era, the policy on settlements construction is set by the White House and not in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. Trump, who is determined and personally committed to try and achieve a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians does not want the settlements to interfere in his achieving the ultimate deal.

The White House agreed to let slide the establishment of a new settlement for the former residents of Amona. It did not condemn the announcement of construction of 2,000 new housing units in the West Bank and did not call the settlements illegitimate. The message coming from the American administration is that it is willing overlook all those decisions because they happened before Trump's watch. At the same time, the White House has made it clear that from now on the rules of the game will change and Israel can no longer build as it pleases.

The security cabinet decision will not bring about a freeze of construction in the settlements, but will significantly slow down the planning and building processes, reduce the number of new housing units and limit their spread in the West Bank. Under the new policy, the planning committee of the Israel Defense Forces' Civil Administration in the West Bank, the body that approves construction plans for the settlements, will now meet only once every three months instead of once a week. All that Netanyahu and Lieberman will have to do in order to delay construction is to cancel the committee's meeting once every three months, using some technical justification or another.

The decision contains a few real achievements for Netanyahu, too. No official freeze on construction in the settlements was made. On the face of it, no limits were set to building in the Jewish neighborhoods over the Green Line in Jerusalem and no distinction has been made between construction in the settlement blocs and in the isolated settlements. Without all this, it would have been difficult, if not impossible for Netanyahu to pass the "Zambish Test," named after the secretary-general of the hands-on settlement arm of the Yesha Council, and have his coalition greenlight the new policy.   

In addition, the White House demanded Netanyahu to return to the understandings between U.S. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in which settlers will build only within the already built-up areas of the settlements. Netanyahu refused, mostly because of the fact that within these built-up areas there is almost no available land left. Netanyahu succeeded in the end in setting a policy of a "lite" version of the Bush-Sharon understandings, in which it will be possible to build as needed alongside the built-up areas, and in doing so expand not just the number of residents in the settlements but also their area.

Conversely, the new policy will not allow the annexation of settlements to Israel, won't allow construction in the controversial E1 area connecting Ma'aleh Adumim to Jerusalem, or allow the legalization of unauthorized outposts and turning them into new settlements.  Netanyahu may have received tacit agreement from the Trump administration for the construction of a new settlement for the Amona evacuees, but while building this new settlement will take at the very least a year, the restrictions on construction will take effect Sunday morning.

Dangerous ambiguity

The extent of construction on the ground will be set according to the interpretation that the White House and Prime Minister's Office give to the new policy. The security cabinet decision is ambiguous enough to allow Netanyahu to build quite a bit if he wants to, or not to build almost at all should the White House so desire. But this ambiguity could turn out to be a double-edged sword: Differing interpretations of the policy by the Israelis and Americans, or a construction tender issued at a sensitive time (as has happened more than once in the past) could quickly lead to a crisis in expectations and a head-on collision between the two parties.

The main weakness of the new settlement policy is that it is not at all clear whether it advances the restarting of the peace process by so much as an inch. For the Palestinians and for Arab nations, the restrictions imposed by the Israeli government on settlement construction do not even reach the bare minimum that would allow negotiations to resume. 

It can be assumed that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, Jordan's King Abdullah II and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will all meet with Trump in the White House over the next two weeks, and will tell him this clearly. Trump has shown so far that he has succeeded in deterring Netanyahu and Bennett in such a way that they have agreed to limit construction in the settlements. The question is whether he will succeed in deterring Abbas too or provide him with an incentive to renew the peace talks. If not, it is definitely possible that Trump will come back to Netanyahu and demand another round of concessions.