The talk and the press reports over the last few months about settlement construction and a settlement freeze have left many confused.
If you listen to the Americans, well, you don't learn much, since they aren't leaking anything about their talks with Netanyahu, Barak, Molcho, and Herzog. So all we know for sure is that it is still the US policy to oppose all settlement activity and that the US expect Israel to stop the settlements. So far so good.
If you listen to Israeli government officials you hear a lot, but much of it is conflicting messages: on the one hand, there are reports that Netanyahu declared he reached agreement with the Americans, apparently about a "limited time" of "reducing" or "curbing" construction, as they call it. On the other hand, we know about the Netanyahu government's approval of the construction of 492 new housing units in the settlements.
If you listen to the settlers, they complain about the injustice being perpetrated against them - of not being able to build homes for their constantly (but absolutely, positively "naturally") expanding communities.
So, since we can't rely on statements and declarations, we are left only with the facts as we know them. But here, too, things get confusing.
On the one hand, it is a fact that since the Netanyahu government took office on March 31, 2009, we have not heard of the Defense Minister approving any plan for a new settlement project in the West Bank (except for the settlement of Adam, which is part of a scandalous agreement in which the government has undertaken to build new units for settlers presently living in the illegal outpost of Migron, should they someday be so kind as to evacuate the site, which is built on private Palestinian land).
But on the other hand, it is also a fact that on the ground we see a lot of new construction. Two weeks ago the Peace Now Settlement Watch team reported extensive groundworks in many settlements, and since then we have found more and more places where there is new construction.
So what is really happening here?
Watching the actions and statements of the settlers, it is clear that they feel they are under pressure. They seem to have concluded - perhaps understanding the nature of politics better than other Israelis - that very soon there may be a real settlement freeze. And they are trying to get as much as possible built, or at least started, before then.
Case in point: A few weeks ago we obtained a letter written by a key figure in one of the regional settlement councils, in which he refers to a new "fast track" offered by the council for initiating new settlement construction. This new fast track shortens and expedites the process necessary for starting new construction by letting people obtain a permit to dig and lay foundations, rather than begin construction on the building itself. This is not business as usual. Normally when a building permit is granted, that permit applies to everything - the structure and its foundations. Getting such a permit is not a quick process, since applicants must satisfy a series of planning, safety and bureaucratic requirements. The new "fast track" is clearly designed to circumvent this longer process. Why? Simply stated: so that settlers can get as much activity going on the ground as possible, in the hopes that if/when a settlement freeze is declared, anything that is already underway will be exempted from the freeze.
Similarly, it seems likely that the Netanyahu government has concluded that eventually there will likely have to be some kind of freeze, but the government's actions would indicate a willingness - if not a shared desire with the settlers - to get as much construction going as possible before any freeze is implemented.
How does this square with the freeze on planning? Actually quite easily: the confusion, I think, stems from the fact that there are two stages to the approval process for settlement construction: approval of plans and approval of actual construction. If you want to build in a settlement, you have to get your plans approved, and then, when you are ready to implement the plans, you have to get the actual construction approved. A real settlement freeze would have to apply to both of these stages - no new plans approved, and no new construction approved, even under already-approved plans. Freezing both of these stages is entirely within the government of Israel's authority, but that is not what has been done.
Instead, we have in place a sort of passive freeze - one that applies only to new planning, while permitting a huge amount of new construction to go ahead, since there is a backlog of plans that have already been approved but not yet implemented. Indeed, according to an official report of the Ministry of Defense, published in Ha'aretz newspaper (the Spiegel Report), the settlements have the theoretical potential to build 40,000 new housing units - units that are already in the pipeline in the context of plans that were previously approved.
The settlers are taking advantage of their government's passivity, complaining publicly about the freeze in new planning approvals (in order to put political pressure on the government) while busily working to do take advantage of plans that have already been approved. So there is no contradiction between the facts that no new plans have been approved in some months, but settlement construction continues, unabated.
And on top of all that, there are many many cases today - as in the past - where settlers are simply building illegally, according to Israeli law. These are cases where settlers go ahead and build without permits or even an approved plan. And as in the past, the Ministry of Defense appears uninterested in enforcing the law and stopping such illegal activities.
So looking at all the facts, the situation is actually not so confusing.
Nobody should be confused about the settlers: they are highly motivated when it comes to building, and with a settlement freeze looming, they are more motivated than ever. And nobody should be confused about the Netanyahu government: this is a government that appears determined to hold off confronting the settlers for as long as possible, and that appears happy to quietly aid and abet the settlers in getting as much settlement activity going, on the ground, in advance of any such confrontation. Indeed, the latest news - that the government is resuscitating a special task force whose mission is to facilitate West Bank settlement construction - only bolsters this analysis.
The only point of real confusion, then, is the Americans, and the extent to which they understand the games that are being played today in the West Bank.
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