Israel: Netanyahu backs benefits package for settlers after protests

After 10,000 settlers and their supporters protested in Israel last night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered tax breaks and other benefits to mollify them. But his effort to please everyone may be backfiring.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Israeli right wing activists hold signs during a rally outside the Prime Minister's residence against the government's decision to freeze construction in West Bank Jewish settlements, in Jerusalem, Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces mounting resistance from his political right to the 10-month settlement freeze announced two weeks ago. And there are increasing signs that his efforts to please the full range of constituents represented in his broad-based coalition government may be backfiring.

Promises that the freeze was temporary failed to mollify angry settlers and their supporters, some 10,000 of whom came out to protest in Jerusalem Wednesday night. Today, Mr. Netanyahu announced additional funds and new social benefits to tens of thousands of settlers in a package directed toward areas of "national priority." The package would recognize isolated settlements as "national development areas" that get preferential treatment and tax breaks to help the communities survive.

The left-wing Labor party slammed Netanyahu's move, and a group of Labor "rebels" began lobbying to get its ministers to vote against the plan at a cabinet meeting this coming Sunday.

The Labor party, whose leaders reached the historic Oslo Peace Accords with the Palestinians in 1993, is a part of Netanyahu's coalition government. But several of Labor's most prominent members are increasingly opposed to their participation in that government, and are putting pressure on the party's decisionmakers not to go along with plans to offer such benefits to settlements.

Referendum law would curtail Netanyahu's power

Netanyahu had specifically aimed to build a broad-based coalition government to strengthen his hand in terms of his latitude in peace negotiations. But that approach may be working against him.

That, says Hebrew University political scientist Gideon Rahat, may explain a move by rightist legislators on Wednesday that would require Netanyahu – or any subsequent prime minister – to put any compromise deal on East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights to a referendum, unless a two-thirds vote in the Knesset could be obtained.

The bill, which was passed on first reading, which still needs to go through two more readings to become law.

"A referendum is a very functional tool in coalition building," Dr. Rahat says. "The question why politicians adopt referendums is a puzzle. They're giving up their right to do what they were elected to do and let the people decide. We expect politicians to want power, not to give up on it.

"Netanyahu giving up this power is a sign that he's afraid of taking responsibility, and so he's putting the responsibility on the people," Rahat says. "Perhaps he can make a peace agreement more easily this way – because ultimately it's not him who will decide, it's the people."

Popular vote a 'constitutional change'

Giving responsibility to the people is something that others have suggested before him, such as when Ehud Barak, now defense minister, promised a referendum on any Golan-for-peace deal with Syria when he was running for prime minister. Yitzhak Rabin first raised the possibility of such a referendum in 1994. But no such vote has ever been held in Israel, and if one were, it's not entirely clear it would pass.

Polls of the Israeli public have shown that a majority are willing to withdraw from parts or even most of the West Bank in exchange for a comprehensive peace deal. But the numbers supporting such a trade in East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights is much lower. Israel annexed both of those territories – unlike the West Bank – and extended Israeli sovereignty there in the 1980s. As such, most of the public does not consider Israelis living in East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights to be settlers, although they are counted as such by international standards.

Aluf Benn, one of Israel's foremost journalists on diplomatic issues, writes in Thursday's edition of the center-left Haaretz newspaper that Netanyahu, by supporting the legislative move to send any major territorial decisions to a popular vote, is "binding himself with constitutional chains."

"He is also signaling the Syrians, the Palestinians and the international community that he will have trouble passing any significant concessions – and trying to strengthen his hand in the negotiations," Mr. Benn writes. "In addition, he is thereby pressing his negotiating partners to close a deal quickly, before the bill becomes law."

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