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Settlements, not solutions, top agenda for new Israeli government

With pro-settler and right-wing parties holding key ministry posts in the new Israeli government, the two-state solution President Obama praised last week may only grow more distant.

By Correspondent / March 24, 2013

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c.) attends the first cabinet meeting of the new Israeli government, in Jerusalem, last week. Mr. Netanyahu's new governing coalition took office after a parliamentary vote last Monday with powerful roles reserved for supporters of settlers in occupied territory.

David Vaaknin/Reuters

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Tel Aviv

President Obama received glowing praise from Israelis for a Jerusalem speech last week in which he reaffirmed his support for the two-state solution. But with the new Israeli cabinet's first working meeting today, a government that could lower the prospects of an eventual Palestinian state is taking the helm.

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As a result of the strong electoral showing by the nationalist Jewish Home party, which earned it a place in the governing coalition, key ministries and other government positions will be held by settlers and their allies, who are determined to make the Israeli presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem irreversible.

"This is the opposite of a dream team, in every important intersection of authority," says Danny Siedemann, a Jerusalem lawyer and peace activist who monitors Israeli building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. "All of these people are predisposed to an unprecedented settlement surge, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. All of them are hostile to the two-state solution."

Although newly appointed Israeli Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, the charismatic leader of Jewish Home, exchanged pleasantries with US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro at a dinner to honor Mr. Obama, he speaks openly about doubling the number of settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to 1 million and annexing much of the West Bank. As trade minister, he can award permits to Israeli businesses seeking to set up premises in West Bank industrial zones and exert influence on decisions made by other ministries.

With Jewish Home members also leading Israel’s housing ministry, which oversees construction in the West Bank as well as Israel, and the Israeli parliament’s finance committee, Mr. Bennett and allies are well positioned to push that agenda. Shortly after Obama’s speech, Mr. Bennett posted a response (in Hebrew) on his Facebook page.

"A Palestinian state isn’t the correct path," he wrote. "It's about time for new and creative solutions to the conflict in the Middle East. Moreover, there’s no such thing as an occupier in his own land."

The coming lovers' quarrel 

To be sure, in the immediate afterglow of Obama's first state visit to Israel – almost universally recognized as a success if the measure is his ability to reassure Israel of his support – this line of criticism seems to be in the minority.

After Obama emerged from Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Israel’s former chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor who served as an escort on the stop, told Israel Radio that Obama had been moved by the museum. "If anyone did think he was an enemy," he said, "they now know he is a lover."

The visit was a success, in part, because Israel’s government was on its best behavior. The army largely ignored rocket attacks from Gaza and an encampment of Palestinians in a controversial tract of land just to the east of Jerusalem. And unlike three years ago, when a new building project in East Jerusalem was announced during Vice President Joe Biden's visit to the country, similar discussions of new Israeli building projects – like a military academy in East Jerusalem – were dropped from the agenda of planning boards.

But Uri Ariel, the new housing minister from Jewish Home, is likely to bring those projects – and many more – back on the agenda. The far-right parliamentarian who resides in the settlement of Kfar Adumim knows about building in the West Bank from years of experience: he once headed the Amana Movement, a 34-year-old settler organization that oversaw home building and the organization of new communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He was also director general of the settlers' umbrella leadership, the Yesha Council, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when settlement activity surged.

In an interview with the pro-settler weekly Eretz Yisrael Shelanu (Our Land Israel), he invoked the Messianic theology of the religious settler movement, saying his appointment marks "another stage on the path to redemption."

He also cited his career of advancing building "in all parts of our holy land." "With God’s help, I will continue on this path," he told the newspaper.

Bracing for bad news

Obama said during his central address in Israel that settlement construction threatens a two-state solution: "Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable with real borders that have to be drawn.’’ 

But now that the glare of the presidential spotlight has abated and Mr. Ariel is heading the ministry that prepares government building tenders in the West Bank, settlement watchdogs are bracing for new announcements about controversial projects like East Jerusalem's Kidmat Tziyon, a 300-unit planned housing development located near a Palestinian Jerusalem neighborhood next to the Mount of Olives.  

Sidemann said that in the next couple of weeks, the "logjam" of building projects in the West Bank and Jerusalem is liable to burst. 

The international community will also be focused on the fate of E-1, a land tract Israel’s government has slated for housing, but is seen by critics as driving a wedge between the northern and southern West Bank. New building projects in far-flung settlements beyond Israel's separation wall will also be watched closely.

Ariel is a "man who gets things done," says Gil Hoffman, the political reporter for The Jerusalem Post. That said, Mr. Hoffman insists that Ariel is a pragmatist and will seek to maintain the pace of building under previous governments rather than a provocative building surge.

Normalization 

Many Israelis expect that Jewish Home will use its leadership of the Knesset finance committee, which prepares the annual budget, to channel additional funds to the settlements.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon has perhaps the most power after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The hard-line member of Likud who is considered sympathetic to the settlers' goals has far-reaching powers to authorize building in the West Bank and has publicly said that an accord with the Palestinians is unrealistic in the near future.

The US is hoping that Obama's positive first trip will reinvigorate peace efforts, though most settlers are not worried. They see the composition of the new Israeli cabinet as a reassurance that Israeli policy will move away from peace negotiations. Yisrael Meidad, a resident of the settlement of Shilo, says the new government could normalize Israeli perceptions of the setters; many nonsettler Israelis are generally not enthusiastic about the settlements and believe that many should be returned to the Palestinians for peace. If attitudes changed, Israel could be headed toward a starkly different vision than that laid out by Obama.

"[The new government] might bring us in from the cold," Mr. Meidad says. "We’ve graduated from being cautiously optimistic to looking forward to its ability to consolidate what I think is the latent willingness of Israel’s population to be comfortable with right-wing or nationalist Zionism."

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