Analysis

Storm Over Palestinian City Expansion Shows: Settler Leaders Have Taken Likud Hostage

The debacle involving the ill-fated Qalqilyah building plan wrought damage on the IDF and revealed the security cabinet's true colors

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting of Likud MK representatives, on June 19, 2017.

After several days of stuttering, embarrassing silences and contradictory statements, Israel's prime minister and defense minister partially closed ranks on Monday in the spat over a new master plan for construction in the West Bank city of Qalqilyah. Within a few hours, both Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman condemned attacks by Likud ministers on senior army officers – especially the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai – for not fully divulging what they know of the expansion plan to the government.

The coordinated condemnation followed angry messages to the government from the Israel Defense Forces brass. The army said there was no justification for shifting the blame to officers in uniform, who were just doing their jobs. The army sees these attacks, especially the accusation by some Likud ministers that Mordechai “led the government and the security cabinet by the nose,” as a continuation of other verbal assaults on IDF officers by ministers Miri Regev and Yuval Steinitz during the last two weeks.

Netanyahu used the platform of a meeting of his Likud party’s Knesset representatives to ask the ministers to stop attacking the IDF. For his part, at a meeting of his Yisrael Beiteinu party's lawmakers, Lieberman declared that he makes the decisions, the responsibility for controversy or lack of clarity is his, they should attack him.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu was changing his interpretation of the decision at the speed of an iPhone 7. First he claimed that he didn’t know the master plan included permits for building 14,000 new homes for Qalqilyah’s Palestinian residents. Then he said the number 14,000 bore “no relation to reality.”

On one issue, however, Netanyahu and Lieberman remain at odds. The prime minister is willing to convene the security cabinet to reconsider the plan, as demanded by Naftali Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi and some Likud ministers. Lieberman, however, declared that as the defense minister, he, by means of the IDF, is the sovereign power in the West Bank.

“You can hold discussions from morning till night,” he said. “We’ll act in accordance with our judgment.”

At least some of the disputes over facts were resolved on Monday. When the security cabinet initially approved the expansion scheme last September, no numbers were mentioned; the ministers merely approved the idea of expanding Qalqilyah in principle. Then Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank, a unit in the Defense Ministry, began the actual planning, eventually coming up with details including a specific number of new homes.

Nevertheless, the settlers’ figure of 14,000 housing units is misleading. The Civil Administration document describes 14,381 homes as “a nominal potential capacity” (there’s nothing like army bureaucrat-ese). In practice, however, the target is 6,187 new homes – and, according to senior IDF officers, it is slated to be reached only in 2030, or perhaps even later.

Habayit Hayehudi is charging that “a major diplomatic move” was sneaked in under the ministers’ noses. But the accuracy of this charge is dubious. All the planned building is on privately owned Palestinian land, in a city surrounded by a wall on all sides, apart from one exit. This really doesn’t endanger plans for the settlers to embark on their own construction, unless you take the view that every building permit for a new Palestinian home is by definition a loss for Israel.

Nevertheless, this whole debacle tells us something about the security cabinet’s modus operandi, as first revealed in the state comptroller’s report on the IDF's 2014 Operation Protective Edge in Gaza – which Netanyahu just recently announced that he intends to correct.

Even after reviewing the minutes of the September meeting over the last two days, the ministers still can’t agree on exactly what happened. Some say they didn’t understand the intentions behind the decisions. Others said they thought the plan would merely legalize existing illegal construction in Qalqilyah rather than approving new construction. It’s also not clear to what degree the National Security Council, whose job is to prepare the groundwork for such meetings, was in the picture.

Whatever the case, it seems that the settlers will achieve their goal: The Qalqilyah plan has probably breathed its last before being implemented. Yoav Mordechai got a delayed half-apology, but the damage to those in uniform has already been done. The coordinator of government activities in the territories has carved out a special position for himself. As he accumulated seniority in the job, he didn’t hesitate to express his professional opinion even when he knew it would anger the ministers. In the struggle between the right and the even-further right in the security cabinet, the army was caught taking fire from both sides and Mordechai was marked as an enemy of the settlements.

In the future, if historians ever document the collapse of the vision of the two-state solution, they will surely ascribe great importance to the ongoing success of the settler leadership in deploying hundreds of thousands of Jews in the West Bank in a way that will make it difficult to establish territorial contiguity for a Palestinian state. But what the settlers have achieved in the political arena is no less important. The hostile takeover of the Likud Central Committee – first by the followers of former Likud MK Moshe Feiglin and then by Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan and his ilk, has turned Israel’s largest political party into a hostage of the settler leadership. Every time the settlers launch a new emotional campaign, the ministers automatically align rightward, and are then followed by the prime minister. The delayed and someone constrained move by Lieberman in support of the officers on Monday may well be remembered in retrospect as statesmanship’s last stand.