Analysis

After Settlers' Outrage, Forgetful Netanyahu Suddenly Can't Remember Approving Palestinian City's Expansion

West Bank settlers angry over plan, while the senior officers who drafted it at the government's behest take the heat

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Sunday, June 18 2017.
ABIR SULTAN/AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has evidently, and very uncharacteristically, begun to suffer from attention deficit disorder. Over the past year, he has explained the passage of a new public broadcasting law that he later regretted by claiming “it slipped by me” during the 2014 war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. On Sunday, during a meeting of the heads of the coalition parties, he said he “didn’t remember” the security cabinet’s approval of a Palestinian plan to build 14,000 new homes in the West Bank city of Qalqilyah.

This claim came in response to a campaign waged by settlers to cancel the plan. Unsurprisingly, this campaign has been joined by cabinet members in Habayit Hayehudi party, as well as by some ministers Netanyahu’s own Likud party who are not in the inner cabinet.

In a manner reminiscent of the conduct of the current U.S. administration, Netanyahu’s statements on Sunday contradicted statements previously put out by his own office. Just last Wednesday, when Channel 2 television first reported the settlers’ outrage over the plan’s approval, the Prime Minister’s Office said, “This is a plan submitted by the defense minister last year and approved by the security cabinet.” But four days later, Netanyahu had changed his tune completely: Instead of a plan approved by the security cabinet (in other words, everything’s fine, go back to business as usual), it’s become a decision that the prime minister has trouble remembering was made on his orders.

The story apparently changed because Netanyahu and his ministers fear the settlers’ anger, given their power in the Likud Central Committee. In recent years, this power has resulted in Likud ministers toeing the right’s line almost completely, especially on issues directly related to construction in the West Bank. The settlers’ opposition to approving construction for the Palestinians stems in part from their dissatisfaction with what they term the slow pace of construction in the settlements — an issue on which there’s a gap between the government’s stated policy of approving plans and actual implementation on the ground, inter alia due to a desire not to clash with the Trump administration.

Netanyahu’s abdication of responsibility on Sunday followed a lead headline in the Makor Rishon newspaper on Friday that quoted Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin, a member of the security cabinet, as saying that Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, “led the government by the nose in scandalous conduct” on the issue of the Qalqilyah plan. By Sunday, Likud ministers were already vying over who could distance themselves most from the plan — and from Mordechai.

But Elkin, and Netanyahu after him, woke up rather belatedly. Most of the story had already been reported by Haaretz back in October 2016.

The master plan for Qalqilyah was secretly approved by the security cabinet in September, but its details were initially kept secret so as not to anger the settlers. Alongside the Qalqilyah plan, the security cabinet approved a long list of other building permits for Palestinians in Area C, the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control. All this was part of the carrot and stick policy advocated by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who ordered Mordechai’s office to draft proposals to improve the economic and humanitarian situation in the West Bank.

At that September meeting, Netanyahu, Lieberman, Arye Dery, Yuval Steinitz, Moshe Kahlon and Yoav Galant voted for the plan; Bennett and Shaked, both of Habayit Hayehudi, voted against. Elkin, who was abroad at the time, didn’t vote; a few other ministers were also absent.

But there’s no question that Netanyahu knew. And it’s not inconceivable that the vote’s timing, while several ministers were away, was deliberately chosen to ensure that the plan passed with minimal opposition.

The person who’s now under fire through no fault of his own is the public servant who followed the orders of the cabinet minister to whom he reports. Mordechai drafted his plan on the defense minister’s orders, and it was approved by the prime minister and the security cabinet. Now, he’s being accused of leading the ministers astray.

In recent weeks, Mordechai has also clashed with Steinitz, the energy minister, over the electricity crisis in Gaza. Yet Mordechai is the man who’s now supposed to help the government get out of the corner it backed itself into, by finding an indirect way to provide electricity to Gaza without Israel being seen as having agreed, out of weakness, to pay for electricity for Hamas after the Palestinian Authority announced it would no longer finance the daily needs of its ideological rival.

One wonders how he maintains his motivation at a time when Elkin is assailing him, the defense minister (his direct superior) is keeping mum and the prime minister is suddenly suffering from amnesia.