Uri Ariel, the Habayit Hayehudi Knesset member slated to become the housing minister, is a personality well known among West Bank settlers. In the last Knesset he belonged to several lobbies promoting settlements in the West Bank and his party was strongly supported by settlers by way of thanks.
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People in the political establishment now worry that he will focus his attention on his natural constituency, and less on the housing crisis facing the rest of the country.
“Ariel is a bulldozer in terms of action and building, but mainly for the national-religious population,” says a former associate of his in Habayit Hayehudi’s previous incarnation as the National Religious Party. “He understands how things work, he’s knows the right people and has the ability to get a lot done. But his most significant history is over the Green Line so the assumption is that’s where he will invest most of his energy.”
The associate said Ariel would work in the same mold as his predecessor at the Housing Ministry, Shas’ Ariel Atias.
“He’ll tell the public stories about marketing land, about affordable housing, housing for young couples and its impact of home prices, but in practice he’ll devote resources to the sector he comes from − the settlements of Judea and Samaria,” he said. “It’s not reasonable to assume he’ll change his spots.”
Ariel was active in the settlement cause long before he was elected to the Knesset, helping to found Mishor Adumim after being demobilized from the army in 1975. He later helped set up Kfar Adumim and became an activist in the Amana settlement movement, of which he was director general for five years.
In the last few years he helped to develop the Har Yona neighborhood in the Arab city of Nazareth, which is eventually supposed to be home to 10,000 people, mostly ultra-Orthodox.
For a decade from 1989 he he was director general of the Yesha Council of settlers and later headed the settlement department at the Defense Ministry. Ariel has been in the Knesset since 2001 and in the last Knesset belonged to the National Union faction, which merged with Habayit Hayehudi before the last election.
If he takes the housing portfolio, Ariel will be joining a long list of senior officials at the ministry and the Israel Lands Administration who trace their roots back to the settlement establishment. ILA chairman Bentzi Lieberman was once chairman of both the Samaria Regional Council and the Yesha Council.
ILA deputy director Leora Tushinsky was administrative vice president of Tnufa at the Prime Minister’s Office and served as CEO of the Samaria Regional Council when Lieberman was council chairman. Attorney Adiel Shamroun was appointed head of the central district, and as head of Tnufa’s budget department was appointed the ILA’s central district manager.
Publicist Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, a close friend of Lieberman and former spokesman for the Yesha Council, is now employed in the ILA spokesman’s office. Doron Ben-Shlomi, past chairman of the settlers’ committee of Gush Katif evacuees, was appointed assistant to the ILA’s director general.
At the Interior Ministry you can find Pinchas Wallerstein, a political and social activist in the West Bank and formerly one of the heads of Gush Emunim and the Yesha Council, and now chairman of the ministry’s boundaries investigation committee. All were members of the Yesha Council and were later connected to the Tnufa administration established to assist the disengagement evacuees.
“So what’s the difference between them and Shas?” rhetorically asked a former party colleague of Ariel. “Everyone in the system today is driving one agenda: promoting settlements over the green line.”
He claims that the matter of housing, a weighty subject, is gradually becoming a political issue thrashed out in the narrow world of politicians holding the same agenda.
“There is nothing wrong with former Yesha people now holding key positions in the government,” responded someone close to Ariel.
“The appointment isn’t sectoral and doesn’t promise housing solutions to any particular group. This needs to be viewed differently. Lieberman, Wallerstein and Ariel hold a record of accomplishment spanning 30 years and know the system from the inside. These are people who established communities and can deal with government officials, remove obstacles and overcome problems relatively quickly,” he said.
One party associate said that despite his background he expects Ariel to serve the general public. “Uri Ariel was been the voice of sanity and moderation in the party. He always maintained good relations with Likud and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which will work in his favor now,” said the associate.