In John Kerry’s first six months in the job as U.S. Secretary of State, when he was trying to jump-start negotiations, there was a de facto settlement freeze in East Jerusalem. Since the talks collapsed on April 1 there has also been a de facto settlement freeze in East Jerusalem. But during the talks there were almost as many new settlement units tendered in East Jerusalem as were tendered in the previous 4 years, combined.
Given the weak “understandings” on settlements that Kerry apparently obtained from Netanyahu at the start of talks – understandings whose starting point was that Netanyahu preferred massively unpopular prisoner releases to any kind of settlement freeze – no one could claim surprise when settlement activity resumed upon the commencement of the talks. Moreover, Netanyahu has a long and famously nasty track record with respect to East Jerusalem, characterized by what seems to be an irresistible impulse to turn to East Jerusalem settlement provocations as a means of “balancing out” anything he does that can be seen as remotely conciliatory toward the Palestinians. For example, the settlements of Ras el Amud and Har Homa were “payback” for reaching the Hebron and Wye River Plantation agreements, respectively.
But during these latest talks the scope, pace and intensity of settlement exceeded previous levels of settlement construction – by orders of magnitude. These levels of activity go well beyond any reasonable interpretation of “self-restraint. They are incompatible with any claim to be negotiating in good faith.
The irony of this situation is stunning: negotiations led to a game-changing settlement surge, while the absence of talks, both prior to the Kerry process and in its wake, gave rise to a de facto East Jerusalem settlement freeze, however temporary.
This freeze no doubt reflects a number of factors, including Netanyahu’s concerns about being blamed for the current mess, fear of weakening the Israeli Government’s narrative that Abbas is not a partner for peace (since he is pursuing reconciliation with Hamas), and concern about drawing international condemnations at a time when the current government’s position vis-à-vis international diplomacy is precarious.
Once again, Netanyahu has demonstrated that he can clamp down on settlement-related developments, including in East Jerusalem, when and if he chooses to do so – and without paying a high political cost domestically (we knew this already, from the Mitchell-era settlement “moratorium”; then, as now, Israelis did not take to the streets demanding settlement approvals, nor did his coalition crumble).
On the negative side, let no one be misled: this won’t last. Netanyahu’s self-restraint, and the restraint he is imposing on others, is tactical and will not continue indefinitely. Netanyahu is currently caught in a dilemma. His wishful and wistful belief was that he would be able to spin things in such a way that the Palestinians would be seen as wholly culpable for the collapse of the talks. Kerry, Indyk and others have refused to cooperate, articulating clearly that the settlements surge had a devastating impact on the negotiations, and was a pivotal factor in their collapse. Netanyahu fears that if he resumes settlements now, the international community's proverbial diplomatic ceiling will come crashing down on him.
But at the same time, from Netanyahu’s own perspective the arguments for resuming settlement activities are overwhelming. He is under increasing pressure from his coalition partner, the Jewish Home party, as well as from his own party and from his far-right, pro-settlement base. All want him to open the floodgates for another settlement surge. This pressure will likely only become stronger the longer talks are off the agenda. Secondly, Palestinian moves regarding membership in international organizations or conventions invariably put Netanyahu in a punitive mode – and there is a clear retaliatory calculus to his settlement policies. And finally, a continued surge remains central to Netanyahu’s strategic goal of unilaterally determining a border – one that is incompatible with any reasonable interpretation of a two-state solution.
What happens next? There are a number of alternate scenarios, but some kind of escalating spiral of move and counter-move seems to be most likely. For example, Netanyahu might allow new settlement tenders and plans in East Jerusalem and the West Bank to go forward. The Palestinians could respond by joining additional international bodies, generating retaliatory measures from Netanyahu. One possible candidate for such a measure is the approval of Givat Hamatos - a settlement which the Palestinians correctly see as a game-changer. Approval of Givat Hamatos would likely generate a Palestinian decision to go to the ICC, which in turn would likely prompt Netanyahu to bring out his doomsday weapon: E-1.