In Israeli settlements, residents and builders push back on 10-month freeze
Israel has begun to enforce a 10-month freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, sending officials out to construction sites to issue stop-work orders.
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Demand has surged in settlements such as Elkana and Oranit, which fall east of the Green Line border with Israel but west of the Israeli security barrier that separates them from the rest of the West Bank. (See map.)Skip to next paragraph
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The location offers proximity to jobs in central Israel and the cheap housing of the West Bank without the perceived risk of eventual evacuation that confronts settlements on the other side of the wall. That draws a more well-to-do population that generally doesn't share the hardened ideology of other settlements.
A settlement where political sentiment gravitates toward Israel's political center, residents of Oranit recoil when they are grouped with the more ideological residents of the West Bank. But Netanyahu's move gives them no choice but to join forces to fight the freeze.
"Until a week ago business was booming," says Meir Hess, an Oranit real estate broker, who fears that a joint land purchase organized for more than two dozen families will collapse because of the freeze. "People think of Oranit as part of Israel. I don't understand why we're included in the freeze."
'Outrage' of the right is real
While his rejection earlier this year of President Obama's call for a comprehensive settlement freeze sparked the most public Israel-US spat in two decades, Netanyahu's slowdown has been praised by the administration. George Mitchell, Obama's special envoy for Middle East Peace, said last week that Netanyahu's move "falls short of a full settlement freeze, but it is more than any Israeli government has done before and can help movement toward agreement between the parties."
But so far it's unclear whether the move is meant simply to shift pressure onto Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for refusing negotiations, or whether it's a signal the pragmatic Netanyahu is willing to cut a landmark peace deal.
"Anyone who dismisses the significance of Netanyahu's move should pay attention to how the settlers are responding," says Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the center-right Shalem Center in Jerusalem. "The outrage on the ideological right against Netanyahu is real and telling. The settlers understand that Netanyahu's freeze goes far beyond what even prime ministers of the left have done."
To be sure, there is no imminent danger of settlers declaring an all-out mutiny against the current prime minister. But they are hoping that Netanyahu's hard-right colleagues in the Likud Party will put enough pressure on him to force the government to rescind the ban.
Meanwhile, those on the left say the halt on building is superficial unless further measures are taken.
Sfard said for a freeze to be effective, Israel's government needs to halt bureaucratic approval for future activity, or else building activity will pick up from where it left off at the end of the 10-month period.
It also remains to be seen, Sfard said, how active the government will be in enforcing potential freeze violations.