Not Forgetful, but Afraid

Israelis have no real reason to be concerned about the state of the prime minister’s memory, but his fear of the settlers should keep them awake at night

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center seated, attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Sunday, June 18 2017.

In September 2016, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Interior Minister Arye Dery, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and Housing Minister Yoav Galant all in attendance, the security cabinet approved a Palestinian master plan to expand the West Bank city of Qalqilyah, along with numerous other permits for Palestinian construction in Area C, the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control.

All the permits were grants as part of Lieberman’s carrot and stick policy, but they were never publicized, to avoid political pressure from the settlers. When the settlers learned about the decision, they predictably launched their standard campaign of pressure and threats.

Fear of the settlers and their representatives in the Habayit Hayehudi party led Netanyahu to come up with creative ways to disavow his involvement in the decision. First he claimed he had forgotten all about the plan. Then he said he hadn’t forgotten, but that during that meeting, no mention was ever made of 14,000 new homes in Qalqilyah – a figure that later proved to be exaggerated

Israelis have no real reason to be concerned about the state of the prime minister’s memory, but his fear of the settlers should keep them awake at night. Even when the security cabinet approved the plan to expand Qalqilyah, Habayit Hayehudi’s two ministers, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, opposed the proposal. And it seems that whatever meager courage Netanyahu mustered to stand up to them in the security cabinet deserted him completely this week.

The defense minister said that approving new master plans was a way of encouraging Palestinians to abandon terror and aspire to live in peaceful coexistence with Israel. “I gave an order that everything that can be done to improve the infrastructure, humanitarian and economic situation, will be done,” he said in August 2016. “My goal is to show the Palestinians that it pays for them to live in coexistence and not enter the cycle of terror.”

This view is shared by the Israel Defense Forces, which sees improving the Palestinians’ quality of life as an important means of channeling anti-Israel pressure in the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, construction in Qalqilyah could have proven that Netanyahu’s promise to U.S. President Donald Trump to take confidence-building steps toward the Palestinians was not just hot air, and that Israel really was willing, for the first time, to reconsider the status of Area C in advance of renewed diplomatic negotiations.

All these reasons are still valid, and justify the plan’s continued implementation. At the same time, Netanyahu must stop the idiotic assault by right-wing ministers and Knesset members on the IDF in general and the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, in particular. The pretext for this assault is the claim that Mordechai led the security cabinet “by the nose” on the issue of construction in Qalqilyah.

The ones who have been leading the country by the nose for decades now are the settlers. And their opposition to the plan proves that they are not merely opposed to Palestinian independence, but even to minimal improvements in Palestinian living conditions.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.