De Facto Settlement Freeze
Tue, 03/01/2011

Settlers in Israel are complaining bitterly that Jerusalem has instituted a de facto freeze on new construction even though it is unofficial; critics of Israeli policy continue to complain bitterly that building is continuing, impeding the peace process.

Welcome to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s world.

It is ironic that although the prime minister’s decision not to renew a 10-month freeze on West Bank construction is seen as the reason for the breakdown in peace talks with the Palestinians, the fact is that very little new construction is taking place in some of the largest settlements.

The mayors of large communities like Ariel and Maale Adumim and insiders in east Jerusalem are saying that very few permits, if any, have been granted in those areas even though the official freeze ended in September (see story on page 30). When asked about this by Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein in Jerusalem last week, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman responded, “No comment, no comment. But Morton, we’re going to change this,” according to Klein.

In effect, it seems the government essentially is maintaining the freeze while getting no political credit in the international community, which opposes settlements and new construction.

But in trying to placate his coalition partners on the right, Netanyahu is allowing some new building to take place, mostly in smaller settlements. And this week he showed his annoyance at leaders of his own Likud party who have been pressing for more construction.

“People don’t understand the reality they are living in,” he reportedly told his colleagues, warning that if they keep raising complaints about the lack of construction, it may jeopardize the amount that is taking place.

Netanyahu’s remarks, and de facto freeze, indicate that he is well aware of world opinion and taking it into account in his actions (or lack thereof). This suggests that the prime minister is not the right-wing ideologue some accuse him of being as he seeks a political balance between his clamoring coalition and international critics.

The question remains: does Netanyahu have a policy of his own that he is pursuing or is he just riding the wave of the political currents?

In the meantime, it seems clear from American diplomat Dennis Ross’ remarks to the J Street national conference in Washington this week that the Mideast peace process essentially is off the administration’s agenda. Ross focused on the revolution in Egypt and had little to offer in the way of progress between Israel and the Palestinians.

The standoff will continue until the parties find it in their interest to talk, and no one knows how long that will be.

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