With the Settlement Freeze Over, Netanyahu's Magic Powers Are Gone

As building restarts in the West Bank, the prime minister's spell over his right-wing coalition partners is breaking.

Since returning to power, Benjamin Netanyahu had reclaimed his magician's wand, which he last wielded 14 years ago when, at the age of 47, he ousted Shimon Peres from the prime minister's office. For the last year and a half he has magically juggled a number of balls: coalition cooperation with the right wing parties and Labor on the left; understandings with settlers and leftists, as well as understandings with Likud centrist Dan Meridor and Likud rightist Moshe Ya'alon. In the air as well were U.S. President Barack Obama and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

This week, the magic started to fade. Netanyahu's Bar-Ilan speech is no longer keeping all the balls dangling above. A black Gentile whose middle name is Hussein no longer holds the settlers, and their supporters in the government and the opposition, in sway.

Benjamin Netanyahu

The settlers and their confederates are not now willing to wait politely until Netanyahu comes up with some formula acceptable to the "Arab," Mahmoud Abbas.

These settler groups have repeatedly shown that the "sacred mission" of building up the Land of Israel takes precedence over "cheap" political calculations.

In 1992, the settlers drove the nail into the Shamir government's coffin. Seven years later, the rejectionist right returned the Likud Party, under Netanyahu's tutelage, to the opposition bench. Up to yesterday afternoon, Netanyahu had been unable to pull a rabbit out of his hat. He had yet to find a formula that would both protect the pride and interests of a U.S. president hungry for success while also sating settlers who hunger for bricks and mortar. (Protests lodged by the Palestinian Authority President are considered, at most, a negligible sideshow. )

Should Netanyahu not restop settlement building, he will have to gamble on Obama's willingness to bite the bullet. Perhaps, on the eve of the mid-term elections, the leader of the free world will choose to disappoint the Middle East's Arab leaders, rather than annoying Jewish leaders in the American heartland.

On the other hand, should the government extend the settlement freeze, MK Aryeh Eldad of National Union will make haste to submit no confidence motions against the government. Not every day do National Union MKs have the chance to administer a test to right-wing MKs and coalition members, to check their comittment to building up of the Land of Israel.

It's hard to imagine them forgoing the pleasure of watching Likud members Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotoveli, (as well as Kadima's Otniel Schneller ) expressing confidence in a government that had refrozen construction in Hebron, the City of the Patriarchs, while expressly violating its promise to renew construction across "Judea and Samaria."

Should he choose this second option, Netanyahu will have to deal with several of his present coalition partners quitting the government. Some members of his own Likud Party might part ways with Netanyahu, should the freeze be started up anew. Yet it is doubtful that a building freeze until Hanukkah, in early December, would be enough to break up the government coalition or rattle a political party.

This is a political price that Likud leaders pay for making peace with an Arab state (as in the example of the establishment of the Tehiya Party, in protest against the peace accord with Egypt ), or for withdrawing from the settlements (witness the birth of the Kadima Party ).

Tzipi Livni announced some time ago to Netanyahu that should she be convinced that he is willing to follow Menachem Begin's example of making peace with Egypt, and Ariel Sharon's decision to pull out of Gaza, Kadima will join the government, even without a power-sharing rotation agreement.

Backbone needed

During the 10-month construction freeze, the High Court fielded dozens of petitions lodged by West Bank Palestinians, complaining about the inability of Israeli authorities to enforce the law in dealings with the settlers. Led by attorney Michael Sfard, lawyers for Peace Now and Yesh Din presented the High Court of Justice with evidence pointing to unauthorized building by settlers that damaged Palestinians' property rights, and their right to free movement.

In most cases, the Civil Administration did not deny claims made by the complainants. Authorities typically responded by saying they have priorities, specifically the distribution and enforcement of freeze orders.

Hence, the government's decision to freeze building permits turned into a license to undertake unauthorized construction projects. Officials in the State Prosecutor's Office, the body with ultimate authority for preserving the law, are not embarrassed to admit to the Supreme Court that the state of Israel is not meeting its obligations.

Time after time they invent strange excuses, and ask the High Court to give the state more time, in its efforts to remove trespassers or, in many cases, to legalize settlement activity.

Infrequently, the High Court allots the state a defined time period to evacuate the encroachers. The example of the Migron settlement is instructive: More than three years ago, the State Prosecutor's Office informed the High Court that the illegal outpost was established on land expropriated from Palestinians; since then, the settlement has flourished.

Attorney Talia Sasson says that when she served in senior positions at the State Prosecutor's Office, whenever she believed that state authorities were involved in illegal activity, she had the option of telling the court that she was unable to defend them.

"Unfortunately," recalls the author of the report on the settlements (a document whose recommendations were largely ignored ), "the State Prosecutor's Office effectively scrapped the outlook presented by legal experts Aharon Barak and Yitzhak Zamir. It preferred to admit that some activity was illegal, while also presenting an array of claims to justify why the authority should, nonetheless, be represented. A particular favorite was the claim that the topic at hand was political, and the government would therefore decide when and how to act concerning it."

Sasson wants Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to stand up and tell the government that he and his colleagues are no longer willing to aid and abet law breaking.

"That would not be so easy to do," Sasson says. "It would take a lot of backbone."