Israel's 455 new settler homes appease Netanyahu allies

Though the approval of new building in West Bank settlements angered many, it appears to have preserved the prime minister's coalition.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to build 455 new homes in the West Bank achieved its primary goal of rallying support from conservative political allies, paving the way for an expected settlement freeze.

Though the move stoked frustration in the US, Europe, and especially in Arab countries, Netanyahu appears to have reduced the risk of a right-wing rebellion over what is expected to be a temporary building moratorium. While the US hoped that such a freeze would help jumpstart peace negotiations, the Israeli prime minister was concerned it could have triggered the deterioration of his governing coalition.

Risking a government "meltdown" for a settlement freeze alone would have been unwise, says Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv think tank.

"Netanyahu's challenge is to keep his coalition together until a moment of truth, out of which he may emerge without a coalition, but with a historic achievement," he says. "This is not a time that merits him using up political capital."

The new housing units help hard-liners like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman argue that the government is actually sidestepping a freeze. "He said, 'We don't mention this word,' " says Tal Nahum, a spokesman for Lieberman's right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party.

Lieberman supports Netanyahu's efforts to seek a compromise on the US demand for a settlement freeze, believing that the prime minister must engage Washington to reestablish more permissive bilateral understandings on "natural growth" of West Bank settlements that Israeli officials claim prevailed during the Bush administration, Nahum said.

US envoy arrives this week

Middle East envoy George Mitchell is scheduled to visit the region later this week for another round of talks on the settlements.

The US is also trying to win gestures from Arab governments on normalizing ties with the Jewish state as a sort of quid pro quo, but Netanyahu's new building plan puts that goal in jeopardy.

On Sunday, the Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa warned that "the reaction would be tough" on any Arab country normalizing ties with Israel in response to the deal. The Palestinians have called the building "totally unacceptable."

'Bitter reality'

"This is not the best option for either for president Obama, the Palestinians or the Israeli left, but this is the bitter reality of realpolitik," says Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East analyst based in Tel Aviv, adding that the only other option would have been the disintegration of his coalition. "With no Israeli government, the peace process [would] be set back even further."

Israeli officials say the new units are in addition to the 2,500 homes already in the construction pipeline which won't be stopped by a moratorium expected to last a few months.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved the 455 new buildings on Monday, though the center-left Haaretz newspaper reported that some of the buildings have already been erected and others had already received authorization but had been frozen.

But construction approvals hasn't mollified settler leaders.

"Judea and Samaria will not rise or fall on another 500 homes," says Shaul Goldstein, the head of the Etzion Bloc regional council of settlements, noting the number represents a 1 percent increase on the current number of housing units in the West Bank. "We believe that if Netanyahu surrenders to the pressure now, he will surrender to the pressure later when he tries to restart building."

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