How Israel warms up for a settlement freeze

Netanyahu's government painted the approval of more than 450 new units Monday as a way to placate right-wing constituents before agreeing to US demands for a halt to construction.

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters
Palestinian labourers stand near houses under construction in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Har Gilo near Jerusalem on Monday.

Israel approved the building of more than 450 new homes in Jewish settlements on Monday, just weeks before possible Israeli-Palestinian talks on the sidelines of the annual United Nations gathering in New York.

The move drew sharp criticism from US and Palestinian leaders, which have pushed hard for a settlement freeze in the West Bank as the first step to relaunching Mideast peace talks. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government cast the approval as a prelude to such a freeze, painting it as an effort to secure the cooperation of his right-wing constituents who could otherwise wreak havoc.

"This is a way of telling the right, I'm still with you," says Michael Feige, an expert on the settlement issue at Ben Gurion University who says Mr. Netanyahu is trying to simultanously answer the pressures of both settlers and the US.

The green light on new building fails to have placated settlers, however, who criticized the number of housing units – a roughly 20 percent increase to the 2,500 homes already under construction – as too few to be meaningful.

Not so for the Palestinians. The permits were issued for new building in major settlement blocs near Jerusalem, which will shore up Israeli demands that those areas become part of the Jewish state in any eventual peace deal – cutting further into the territory Palestinians claim for a future state. In addition, Israel wants the units under construction to be excluded from any freeze.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Monday's decision made a farce of any future halt to building.

"Israel's decision to approve the construction of over 450 new settlement units nullifies any effect that a settlement freeze, when and if announced, will have," Erekat said in a statement.

Settler leader: Obama will fail

The settlers themselves reject any suggestion of moving towards a freeze. Daniel Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha, a group which represents settlers in the West Bank, said that "the international community is totally wrong" to think that a settlement freeze and the creation of an independent Palestinian state is a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Speaking to foreign reporters Monday, Mr. Dayan said he expects Obama to fail – like the last seven US presidents – to bring peace to the Middle East because he had been "trapped by the same illusion" as his predecessors. He said it was impossible to freeze growth. "There are two pandemics running in the world today. One is swine flu, and the settlement psychosis," he quipped, adding with wonderment that the "international community is so interested in whether my daughter builds a house next to mine."

Livni: Can't combine construction, freeze

Defense Minister Ehud Barak personally signed many of the permits, including those for 20 buildings in Maskiot, a new settlement in the Jordan Valley. As leader of the Labor Party, Mr. Barak is helping to legitimize Netanyahu's move, says Prof. Feige, who wrote the recent book, Settling in the Hearts: Jewish Fundamentalism in the Occupied Territories.

But Barak came under attack by many on politicians on the Israeli left, who said he had forsaken the vision of the two-state solution he espoused when he led the country in peace talks 10 years ago.

Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, now opposition leader, also criticized the move as being nonsensical.

"The attempt at combining construction and a freeze is false," she told reporters Monday, comparing the spree to building "an igloo [that] will melt in the summer."

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