Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is moving to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank at a time when international attention is focused elsewhere, with President Obama gearing up for reelection and the West targeting Iran's nuclear program.
Last week, the Netanyahu government took a variety of steps that, taken together, amount to a significant strengthening of Israel's hold in the West Bank, the biblically resonant territory occupied in 1967, which Palestinians claim as the heartland for their future state.
For Netanyahu, who heads a right-wing coalition with a strong pro-settler contingent, it was a delicate dance of one small step back and six larger steps forward for settlements.
On April 4, the prime minister backed the evacuation of a house illegally occupied by settlers in the flashpoint city of Hebron, endorsing his attorney general's position that there was no legal argument for approving the settler takeover. That angered some among his hard-line constituency, including Danny Dayan, head of the Yesha Council that represents 300,000 settlers. ''It is intolerable that Jews cannot exercise their property rights simply because they are Jews,'' Dayan says.
To assuage this anger, Mr. Netanyahu declared the same day that he instructed the government to authorize three illegal outposts in the West Bank, despite Israel's having committed itself in the 2003 international peace blueprint, known as the "road map," to dismantle them. Hours later, tenders were issued for building a new neighborhood of 800 units in Har Homa, a settlement in annexed East Jerusalem, and for 180 new units in Givat Zeev, north of Jerusalem.
''It is all related, it is all part of the same package,'' says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. ''He is able to say to his hard-core right wing supporters, 'I evacuated those people, but look what I'm building. We had to stand up for the rule of law but we're still building the Land of Israel and here's the proof.' It's quintessential Netanyahu: Speaking to please everyone, while facilitating the spread of settlements.''
Also on April 4, Netanyahu announced his government would seek to preserve the unauthorized Ulpana outpost abutting the Beit El settlement just north of Ramallah despite its being built entirely on private Palestinian property. Netanyahu also said he was asking the government to begin procedures to legalize three other illegal outposts – Rekhelim, Sansana, and Brukhin, a move that would make them among the first new settlements authorized since the early days of the peace process in 1995 and could pave the way for further legalizations among the 96 outposts in the West Bank.
Netanyahu's statement was seized upon by residents here as a possible reprieve from a Supreme Court ruling to demolish six buildings housing 150 people in Ulpana by May 1 so the land could be returned to its Palestinian owners.
''I'm glad Netanyahu is thinking about our issue, I was very nervous we would have to move in the middle of the school year,'' says Alex Traiman, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Ulpana and is a father of three. ''It doesn't seem illegitimate to me to legalize the buildings,'' he says.
The red-roofed, three-story structures – which in recent months have become a pilgrimage site for right-wing politicians – were built 12 years ago. The government offered generous subsidies for people to move there. The homes are hooked up to electricity, sewerage, and phone service and have a good access road with neatly painted white parking spaces. Overlooking a hillside with purple bougainvilleas, the outpost has the feel of a suburban street.
Both the outposts and the more established settlements like Har Homa are seen as illegal by the international community for violating the Fourth Geneva Convention, a stance Israel rejects.
In Mr. Alpher's view, Netanyahu's calculations are straightforward: pleasing his right-wing core constituency and satisfying his own ideological inclinations on the one hand while avoiding severe international condemnations on the other. Because Netanyahu likely does not need to take the latter factor into account until at least after the US election, Mr. Alpher and other analysts argue, a continuation of the heightened settlement activity announced last week is likely during the months ahead.
''Undoubtedly the focus on Iran also helps him to do what he wants in the West Bank, '' Alpher adds.
''He wants to use this time to expand the settlements and to encourage more and more building,'' Eldar says.
Israeli officials deny this, saying Netanyahu wants to pursue a two-state compromise but that the Palestinians refuse to come to the bargaining table.
'All of us will pay a price' for settlement expansion
Netanyahu said in an interview published in Maariv newspaper Friday that an agreement with the Palestinians is important so that Israel can remain a Jewish state and avert becoming a binational one that includes the large Palestinian population of the West Bank.
But he stressed that such an agreement wouldn't be able to solve a larger problem of mounting hostility in the region toward Israel resulting from the post-Arab Spring gains by Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt and elsewhere. In remarks to the Knesset late last year, Netanyahu said explicitly that concessions to the Palestinians were unwise during a period of instability in the region. ''We can't know who will end up with any piece of territory we give up,'' he said.
Netanyahu told Maariv that his vision for settlement involves ''safeguarding the large settlement blocs,'' retaining ''areas of religious-national significance to our people,'' and keeping areas where Israel has a security interest.
Although this would appear to leave the Palestinians with little for their state, Yigal Palmor, the Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, says Netanyahu is open to discussing the future of settlements with the Palestinians. ''If they really want to do something about settlements, they need to enter negotiations and address it in the framework of negotiations,'' Mr. Palmor says.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has made Israel's freezing of settlement construction a precondition for resuming talks, something Israel rejects.
In the view of Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib, only an active US role can stem Israeli settlement and save the two-state solution. ''It is true that America is preoccupied with elections and Israel is taking advantage of that, but all of us will pay a price for closing an eye to the continued Israeli violations, especially the expansion of settlements,'' he says
In Ulpana, resident Didi Dickstein, a father of two, says Netanyahu's statement of support is important, but that he still fears the demolitions may occur. A former soldier in army intelligence and a business administration major, he says those living in Ulpana are educators and employees of high-tech companies, not the stereotypical radical youths of some other outposts. ''We are not people who look for confrontations or to take over anything,'' he says.