Israel’s gesture for Palestinian homes

A rare and diverse ruling coalition in Israel takes an unusual step toward building houses for West Bank Palestinians. The move might open a door for peace talks.

Palestinian demonstrators confront Israeli forces during a protest against Israeli settlements, near Tubas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank July 27.

One mark of a healthy democracy is how much its majority accommodates and protects minority interests. Since June, Israel’s democracy has been very healthy, a result of eight parties joining in a rare coalition and forming a government that operates by consensus. The new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, promised “to do all we can so that no one should have to feel afraid.” Indeed, last month, this grouping of parties from the far-left to the far-right – as well as an Arab party – was able to agree on a national budget, an elusive target in Israeli politics.

Now that spirit may be extending to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, home to an often-violent contest over land that pits Palestinian aspirations for an independent state against Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state.

In a significant gesture to Palestinian interests, the new government gave initial approval Wednesday to the construction of 863 housing units in Palestinian villages in the West Bank for the first time in years. Previous governments had long denied building permits for Palestinians in what is called Area C, which makes up about 60% of the West Bank.

While West Bank Palestinians are not Israeli citizens, they rely very much on the actions of Israeli democracy. (About 20% of citizens within Israel are Arabs, a term used to distinguish them from Arab Palestinians.) Most of the new homes will be near the city of Jenin, which has seen deadly clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops this year.

Before he became prime minister, Mr. Bennett was a champion of building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and an opponent of Palestinian building in Area C. But the new democratic spirit and a need to deal with the Biden administration may have helped change his position. After a recent visit to Israel by a top American official, the State Department said the United States sought “to advance equal measures of freedom, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

To be sure, the plan for new Palestinian homes includes at least 1,000 new Jewish residences in the West Bank. But with Mr. Bennett due to meet President Joe Biden at the White House in coming weeks, the Israeli coalition felt some pressure to accommodate Palestinian interests for new homes.

That move could open a door for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to resume negotiations over the future of the West Bank. Like any democracy, Israel must someday deal with the need for pluralism and tolerance between Jews and Palestinians. Even within Israel, the issue is similar. As Israel’s recent president, Reuven Rivlin, once asked, “Do we share a common denominator of values with the power to link all these sectors together in the Jewish and democratic State of Israel?”

The test of his challenge is now playing out anew in the West Bank, where both Jews and Palestinians must eventually learn to accommodate and protect each other’s interests for the sake of a greater good. Israel’s new and diverse ruling coalition has taken a step toward that democratic necessity.

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