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Settlement permits placate Israeli hawks

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's move may have been necessary to keep his governing alliance intact and the prospect of U.S.-brokered talks alive.

September 08, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — With a green light to build 455 homes for settlers in the West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have contained unrest among his right-wing supporters over a likely deal with the Obama administration to limit the growth of Jewish communities on land claimed by the Palestinians.

The Defense Ministry announced the construction permits Monday, ignoring White House objections voiced Friday after Israel's intentions were first disclosed.

Israeli officials insisted that the new housing units, along with 2,500 already under construction, will be exempt from any suspension of settlement growth, even though discussions with U.S. special envoy George J. Mitchell over the issue are still in the final stages.

President Obama had pressed for a full halt to settlement activity in order to coax the Palestinians into new peace talks with Israel. When Netanyahu resisted, the discussions began focusing on limiting settlement construction. But Israel's new building permits upped the ante, complicating a U.S. effort to bring Obama, Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas together this month and launch a peace initiative.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Monday that Netanyahu's decision "further undermines faith in the peace process and the belief that Israel is a credible partner for peace." Earlier the White House voiced "regret," and Abbas left it doubtful he would agree to meet with the Israeli leader.

In Israel, Netanyahu's move was viewed as an awkward compromise that, while leaving all sides dissatisfied, may have been necessary to keep his governing alliance intact and the prospect of U.S.-brokered talks with the Palestinians alive. The building permits, the first granted since Netanyahu took office in March, appeared to cement a governing coalition that has pledged to tighten Israel's hold over the West Bank even if peace talks that broke off last year resume.

"He allowed the minimum that will appease the hawks in his coalition and not annoy the United States too much," said Danny Dayan, a leader of the settler movement who had pressed for far more permits. "It was a cold tactical move."

Israel has been building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since capturing the territories, along with East Jerusalem, in the 1967 Middle East War. Most countries consider the settlements a violation of international law. Israel withdrew its 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005 but, despite periodic U.S. pressure, maintains about 300,000 settlers among the West Bank's 2.5 million Palestinians.

The settlers' numbers have more than doubled in the last 18 years. Their leaders reject the goal of an independent Palestinian state, saying it would not bring peace to Israel, and oppose any limits on Jewish settlement of the West Bank.

Recent reports of a tentative deal with the United States caused an uproar among settlers, who have chafed at informal restrictions on settlement activity since 2007 and expected Netanyahu to lift them.

Instead, according to the reports in Israeli media, Netanyahu would agree to stop issuing new construction tenders and building permits in the West Bank for at least six months, a period that would allow peace talks to advance and Arab countries to take promised steps to normalize relations with the Jewish state.

Bracing to avoid challenges from the right, Netanyahu last week decided to withhold any agreements with Mitchell from Cabinet discussion. Earlier he had persuaded the Knesset, Israel's parliament, to adopt a two-year budget, removing a tool of potential pressure by right-wing lawmakers to block a settlement slowdown.

The new housing permits shifted the debate in those circles.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, a Likud member, called the decision "a well balanced move." Interior Minister Eli Yishai, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, called the tentative deal with Washington "a strategic suspension" of Jewish building and emphasized Netanyahu's refusal to halt such activity in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem.

Three Cabinet ministers and a few Likud lawmakers joined pro-settler groups Monday at a rally east of Jerusalem. They laid a mock cornerstone for what they hope will be a new neighborhood of 3,000 apartments in a sensitive area known as E-1. The past three U.S. administrations have opposed any building there until Israel's borders are defined by a peace accord.

But the rally was more in support of settlements than against Netanyahu, a sign that he does not yet face the kind of right-wing revolt that toppled his previous government in the late 1990s.

"I congratulate the prime minister for withstanding U.S. pressure," said Zeev Elkin, a Likud lawmaker who attended the rally. "The decision to approve new housing units is the right decision."

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