Israel's Unofficial Minister of Settlements

This ritual of Uri Ariel as “bad cop” and Netanyahu as “good cop” can’t hide the reality for long. Netanyahu is enabling an extremist representative of the settlers to hold a job that involves enormous diplomatic sensitivity.

The main question that must be asked about Uri Ariel is what his true role in the cabinet is. Ostensibly, he is the housing and construction minister – the person who’s supposed to look out for thousands of young couples who can’t buy an apartment, the person who’s supposed to alter the situation whereby an apartment in Israel costs about 130 average monthly salaries, the person who’s supposed to work energetically and resolutely to rehabilitate distressed neighborhoods. The problem is that Ariel isn’t really interested in any of these major issues for which his ministry is responsible. Instead, most of his energy is invested in his unofficial job: minister of settlements.

On Tuesday, we learned from reporters Chaim Levinson and Barak Ravid that the Housing and Construction Ministry published a tender for an architect to plan the construction of 1,200 apartments in the southern part of the E1 area, near the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim. The tender, published at a time when talks with the Palestinians are proceeding lackadaisically, is part of a series of planning tenders that are supposed to lead to the construction of 20,000 housing units in 23 West Bank settlements, at a cost of NIS 50 million. This is activity on a scale unparalleled in the last decade.

The hasty publication of these tenders isn’t surprising, given Ariel’s declared goals. Three months ago, he announced that “in Judea and Samaria, and throughout the State of Israel, thousands of housing units will be built over the next year. ... There’s no region where we won’t build. It’s inconceivable that there should be a region where others will dictate to us whether or not to build.” Earlier this year, during discussions of the state budget, Ariel informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “if the budget doesn’t include funding for all the construction projects in Judea and Samaria ... the Habayit Hayehudi party will see this as the violation of a promise.”

Granted, Netanyahu halted publication of the E1 tender as soon as he learned of it, but this ritual, in which Ariel plays the “bad cop” while Netanyahu plays the “good cop,” can’t hide the reality for long. And the reality is that Israel’s prime minister is enabling an extremist representative of the settlers to hold a job that involves enormous diplomatic sensitivity. This fact alone says more than any periodic dousing of fires could about the basic motivations of this government and the person who heads it.

Thus, if Netanyahu is truly serious about holding negotiations with the Palestinians, he must transfer Ariel from the post of housing and construction minister and replace him with a minister whose goals are professional rather than political.