Opinion

How Netanyahu Parlays That New Palestinian Housing

Netanyahu attends a cabinet meetings, August 1, 2019.
Emil Salman

During an election campaign in which all the candidates are going crazy trying not to be branded leftists, the security cabinet managed to find the time and goodwill to approve a plan to build 715 housing units in Palestinian villages in the West Bank’s Area C, an area under Israeli administrative control. Apparently it was really important to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to approve the construction for the Palestinians. Like a craving for pistachio ice cream in the middle of the night, a craving for Palestinian housing hit him on Tuesday evening.

In fact, Netanyahu couldn’t restrain himself until the cabinet met. Get the ministers on the phone! He wants to build for the Palestinians, and he wants to build for them now!

Sure enough, the plan was approved unanimously by the telephone ballot. What a coincidence that the very next day Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser on the Middle East, landed here and might soon unveil the “deal of the century” peace plan.

It turns out that Netanyahu wasn’t the only one who was burning to do something for the Palestinians. Amazingly, all the members of the security cabinet voted in favor, including the ministers from the far right, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Education Minister Rafi Peretz, the representatives of the settlers, and the other supporters of the annexation of the West Bank, including Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin.

It’s obvious that Netanyahu insisted that the entire security cabinet sign off on the construction. God forbid that one minister would consider using his party’s election jingle to show a Netanyahu who loves Arabs and approves construction for them in the “parts of the homeland known as Area C” – to quote the head of the South Hebron Hills Regional Council, Yochai Damri, who was “shocked” by the decision. If I fall, you’ll all fall with me.

Just think what would have happened if this were the security cabinet of a left-wing government still functioning as an interim government before an election voting to build for the Palestinians. This is a privilege reserved for the right: They can do what they want because when they breach the values of their own camp, they’re not attacked by the left, and when it happens it’s always warped because suddenly the left is attacking the right from the right.

Smotrich, however, supplied a different explanation for the move: not as a surrender to American pressure, or as carrots for the Palestinians, may God forgive us. On Facebook he wrote: “For the first time Israel has decided that in Area C, construction will be only for the Arabs who are original residents of the territory as of 1994 (the Oslo II accord) – not for the Arabs who arrived later from Areas A and B.”

According to Smotrich, in doing so Israel has decided that the Palestinians will be able to build “in places that do not harm settlements and Israel’s security, and would not create [Palestinian] contiguity or create a situation of a de facto Palestinian state. For the first time Israel will realize its sovereignty and responsibility for the entire territory, and take responsibility for what is done there.” In other words, this is an important step on the road to annexing Area C.

If Smotrich isn’t lying, and this isn’t just demagogic spin for electoral purposes, it seems he’s saying that the Americans are pushing to apply Israeli sovereignty to Area C. But as far as is known, Netanyahu is a fan of the status quo and doesn’t support annexation.

If this is the case, a decisive victory for Netanyahu in the September election would leave him in a complicated situation. After all, a gridlocked government is a key component of his strategy of preserving the status quo. “I want to but can’t” is his excuse of the century. The last thing he needs is a stable coalition government that would let him agree to the “deal of the century” that the overly friendly U.S. administration is offering him – an offer that can’t be refused even when it outflanks him from the right.