Netanyahu's Promises of Settlement Construction Are Nothing but a Smokescreen

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A profile shot of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the 2016 Genesis Prize award-ceremony in Jerusalem, June 23, 2016. He is wearing a dark suit, white shirt and dark tie.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Amir Cohen, Reuters

The ritual repeated itself yet again: a series of terrorist attacks against West Bank settlers spawns an “appropriate Zionist and national response” in the form of bombastic declarations of new construction in the settlements and/or Jerusalem.

After the murder last week of 13-year-old Hallel Ariel in Kiryat Arba, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recycled a previous promise to build 42 new residential units in the settlement adjacent to Hebron. Furthermore, in the wake of the murder of Rabbi Michael Mark, from the settlement of Otniel, it was reported that Netanyahu and Lieberman had approved a plan to build 500 residential units in Ma’aleh Adumim, and 240 units in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramot, Gilo and Har Homa – all of them over the Green Line. At the same time, a plan to build 600 housing units for Palestinians in Beit Safafa (Givat Hamatos), in Jerusalem, was revived, ahead of High Court of Justice deliberations on a petition submitted by local Arab residents a few years ago against a general ban on building there. Despite protests from the right, construction by Jews will not be allowed there, because of what sources in the Prime Minister’s Bureau describe as opposition and “international pressure,” primarily from Germany.

After all this, and after Netanyahu had left on his African junket this week, one of the leaders of the right wing looked into exactly what had been approved and what would likely be built. His conclusion: nada, other than the 600 homes for Palestinians in Givat Hamatos.

The industrious politician checked the details in the Finance Ministry’s planning directorate. Officials there told him that they didn’t have a clue about what exactly had been approved or for where. The Ma’aleh Adumim municipality told him that the units in question might be built in another 10 years. No authorization was apparently given to start building immediately. It was the same story in the Jerusalem Municipality: There are no details, only media stories.

The politician in question was forced to admit, for the umpteenth time in recent years, that Netanyahu had performed a sleight of hand on him and his nave constituency, emitting a colorful smokescreen while juggling hundreds of apartments. When the smoke dissipated, all that remained was a vacuum. No significant construction will come of all this brouhaha, and in the meantime, our magician was already airborne.

What did we get, in cash and without delay? Condemnations and reprimands from the Americans and from the EU. And for what? For zero Jewish construction and relatively large-scale Palestinian construction. “Listen,” the politician said admiringly, “you have to hand it to Bibi. He’s something else.”

Kahlon’s soup

When Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) is asked about the spate of political declarations he’s made recently, he responds by telling an old joke: One day, when he was 5, a boy who had never before spoken, suddenly opened his mouth and complained that the soup he’d been served at lunch was too hot. His thrilled parents asked him: Why didn’t you say a word until now? Because the soup was fine, he replied.

In Kahlon’s view, his comments with respect to the diplomatic-political realm – such as in favor of Israel signing the military-aid agreement with the United States, or in support of thawing the building freeze in Jerusalem – are not disconnected from the current state of the economy. It’s the economy, Bibi – that’s the message he’s sending the prime minister. On Monday, while Netanyahu was in Africa, Kahlon attacked him from the right by urging him to allow construction in Jerusalem. “We introduce a freeze and they [the Palestinians] incite, we introduce a freeze and they murder,” Kahlon said, reading from a prepared text. But before Netanyahu left, the two had a disagreement in which Kahlon expressed a more moderate view, concerning the withholding of taxes that Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu wanted to withhold a hefty portion of the funds; Kahlon insisted on fining the PA, based on the amount it transfers to terrorists’ families. Kahlon won the argument: In the end, it’s he who signs the bank transfers.

In a private conversation this week, the treasury minister said that if by the end of the present term of this government, the housing problem of 100,000 young couples is not resolved, perhaps via a lottery for subsidized homes – he will not run in the next election. He thus made his goal more flexible: In the past, he vowed that he would not run again if he failed to lower the price of housing. Now he’s expressed his readiness to make do with specific solutions that, though they many help many young people, do not necessarily address the root of Israel’s economic malaise. To accomplish that will probably require more than one full Knesset term, and also a beneficent government and finance minister.

The housing issue has recently staged a comeback, taking its place at the center of public discourse. TheMarker reported this week that a third of the public thinks that the creeping rise in housing costs – 32 percent since the protest movement of 2011 – is in itself enough to justify a return to the streets by the demonstrators.

Fourteen months have elapsed since this government took over, and the first signs of panic are visible in Kahlon’s party. MK Eli Cohen, a Kahlon confidant who chairs the Knesset’s committee on economic reforms, this week blamed the Bank of Israel for the high price of housing. “The interest rate for mortgages isn’t being capped!! Whereas the national rate of interest remains next to zero!! Someone has to put a stop to this,” Cohen tweeted (exclamation marks included). There was nothing accidental or nave in Cohen’s effort to train the spotlight on Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug and her deputy, Nadine Baudot-Trajtenberg.

The bursting toolbox that Kahlon received as part of the coalition agreement contains everything – apart from the Bank of Israel’s powers to set interest rates.

In any event, he rejects the allegation that his declarations on political matters are part of an attempt to deflect attention from his own failure to reduce housing costs. “Nonsense,” he said this week. “In the next election campaign, I will be scrutinized not for the memorandum of understandings with Washington or for construction in Jerusalem, but on one issue only: housing and the cost of living.”

Why, then, the recurring statements on policy? “I have been saying those things for a year in meetings of the cabinet and the security cabinet,” he explained to his interlocutor. “Some people asked me why I don’t say publicly what I always say in closed forums. I understood that as a party leader, it’s my responsibility to give expression to those issues.”