Obama visits an Israel in which Jews on the West Bank enjoy new respect, power.
Tel Aviv — When Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party emerged as the surprise No. 2 finisher in Israel’s January parliamentary elections, it was widely hailed as a sign that the policies of Israel’s government were poised to moderate on Israeli-Palestinian relations.
And when President Barack Obama scheduled a visit to Israel shortly afterward, many expected it would have a similar mellowing effect by prodding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek a balanced coalition government and avoid provocative new settlement announcements.
But now that a new government has emerged from six weeks of coalition talks, many observers — both settlers and peaceniks — say the cabinet makeup is likely to produce policies that will be even more sympathetic to Jewish settlers and hostile to a two-state solution than before.
That’s because key ministries and governmental roles — from the all-powerful Defense Ministry, to the Housing Ministry, to the purse strings of the parliament Finance Committee chairman — will be held by settlers or their backers.
Jewish settlers and their lobby will gain control of sensitive points of influence to possibly push waves of building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, including Israeli toeholds in Palestinian areas in and around the Old City of Jerusalem.
While peacenik observers warn that the third Netanyahu government will be the most pro-settler governments in Israel’s history, leaders in Judea and Samaria see the new government as an opportunity — not only for more housing but to de-stigmatize Israeli perceptions of them as outside of the mainstream.
It’s a chance to be perceived as normal, patriotic Israelis, said Yisrael Meidad, a resident of the settlement of Shiloh.
“We Jews living across the Green Line are considered the extremists, the radicals, or the population whose existence is never assured,” he said. “With this government I think, we will be able to come in from the cold, and say, ‘Yes, he is a Zionist.’”
That view was echoed by Hebrew University professor Shlomo Avineri, an expert on Zionist history and a former director general of the Foreign Ministry, who told the annual Herzliya Conference last week that Israel’s new government is shaping up to be one of the most right-wing and nationalist in Israel’s history.
Of the 68 parliament members in the coalition, some 43 hail from hard-line parties. Netanyahu’s Likud Party shifted to the right compared to the previous parliament, leaving the prime minister as a minority in the party that backs the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Likud Knesset member Moshe Yaalon became defense minister this week, replacing Ehud Barak, a proponent of a deal with the Palestinians who drew fire from settlers for allegedly delaying large building plans. Yaalon, who will enjoy wide powers governing the West Bank, openly says an accord with the Palestinians is not possible. He is considered more sympathetic to the settlers’ goals and is also viewed as aspiring to succeed Netanyahu at the helm of the Likud.
“That is the most important change,” said Danny Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha Council, the umbrella group for settlers. “[Yaalon] understands perfectly well the situation vis a vis the Palestinians.”
The Housing Ministry will be headed by Uri Ariel, a parliamentarian from the Jewish Home Party who knows about land development from years of experience: he used to head up the Amana Movement, the 34-year-old settler organization that oversaw home building and the organization of new communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Working with Ariel in the powerful Israel Lands Association will be Bentzi Lieberman, a former chairman of the settler regional council in the north-central West Bank.
Meanwhile, former Yesha Council member Nissim Slomiansky, also from Jewish Home, will chair the Knesset’s Finance Committee, which oversees fiscal policy by preparing of the annual state budget law for passage.
“The weight of evidence is clearly pointing to a pro-settler coalition that is going pursue a settlement policy that is going to make the two-state solution impossible,” said Daniel Siedemann, a Jerusalem lawyer and peace activist who monitors Israeli construction in east Jerusalem.
Siedemann says that government efforts to advance new settlements were put in neutral in the weeks leading up to Obama’s visit. Discussions on authorization for two planned east Jerusalem projects were removed from the agenda of two planning board meetings in recent months. But after Obama’s departure and the return from the Passover holiday, a “logjam” of authorizations could be released.
The main counterweight of the pro-settler politicos in the Israeli government will be Finance Minister Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who has been put in charge of peace talks with the Palestinians — an appointment that has annoyed the right wing.
Lapid, one of the most powerful politicians in Israel, will spearhead fiscal policy and control the government purse strings, though it is unclear whether he will seek to pull in another direction and jeopardize his main focus of domestic reform.
A close confidant of Lapid’s from Yesh Atid acknowledged to reporters on Monday that even though the party supports the two-state solution, it does not occupy the policy-making spots in the government to impact its agenda.
“It’s true,” said Yesh Atid Knesset member Ofer Shelach, “outside of the participation of Yair Lapid in the [security] cabinet and of a Yesh Atid minister in Tzippi Livni’s group that’s going to head the effort on negotiations, we don’t have any of the foreign relations or security positions.”
Livni stands as the government’s most outspoken advocate of negotiations for a peace accord, which was her main campaign issue. Despite her position leading the talks with the Palestinians and her vows that she has “enlisted” to “fight” for peace, many doubt that the prime minister will give her enough backing to reach a breakthrough.
Rather than chief negotiator, her position at the Justice Ministry will position her to review laws affecting the status of the West Bank, such as if efforts are revived from the last government to legalize unauthorized settlement outposts.
That probably gives pause to settlers like Aviella Deitsch, who was evacuated from the outpost of Migron last September because the Supreme Court forced the state to evacuate what it admitted was an illegal settlement built on Palestinian private property. Deitsch said she will judge no one based on their resumes.
“There are a lot of new people that have come into office,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I can only say to them, “Prove yourselves.”
Other observers have more confidence in the efficacy of those running the new government. Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit said that Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett’s alliance with Yair Lapid in coalition talks has put Bennett in the role of the linchpin of the new government, even though the message of the Israeli voter was for moderation.
“What you saw in this election campaign was the invisible hands of Israeli common sense, which acted against extreme ultra-nationalists, and the ultra-Orthodox. These parties overplayed their cards. The silent and sane Israeli majority acted to counteract that,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the Lapid-Bennett alliance turned the settlers into the greatest winners. While the election was about the uprising of the middle class against extremism, the government is controlled by the settler extremists.”
Meidad of Shiloh said that he shared Shavit’s assessment that the settlers and their advocates would benefit from the upcoming administration.
“As long as we don’t cause trouble — like the hilltop youth — I think we are going to do very well with this government.”