Quiet Freeze during the First Quarter of 2012
On January 3rd the Israel Lands Authority published the first 631 tenders of the 1557 punitive settlement units announced after the UNESCO vote. The timing was unfortunate (and almost certainly not coincidental) – the units were announced the same day the Prime Minister’s envoy was conducting talks with Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat in Amman.
From that date until April 4, 2012, no new tenders were published, including any of the remaining 926 units that were announced post-UNESCO. In addition, during this period no new plans for settlement homes were deposited for public review, no plans approved, and no hearings on plans conducted. It is unlikely that this happened by chance. Rather, it appears that for the first quarter of 2012, there was a silent (and, notably, only partial) settlement freeze in East Jerusalem. Partial, in that it did not apply to settler schemes in the Old City basin, like the Givati parking lot, or to non-residential schemes like the Refaim Park and Mount Scopus Slopes park.
There are a number of possible reasons why Netanyahu may have decided to cool the ongoing East Jerusalem settlement surge during the first quarter of 2012. The less likely possibilities are that Netanyahu has undergone a change of heart on settlements or is responding to international pressure. We deem both of these explanations implausible, given Netanyahu’s history, his continued public stances, his previous readiness to ignore pressure from the U.S. and others in the international community, and in general, the absence of any confirming indications. Moreover, the reality is that there appears that for now there is no real pressure, public or private, from the United States on Netanyahu over Jerusalem-related settlement issues.
The more likely explanation is that Netanyahu didn’t want to get blamed – by the Israeli people, the Obama Administration, the American Jewish community, or anyone else – for a collapse of the not-quite-dead-yet Israeli-Palestinian talks. He also didn’t want to antagonize the Jordanians, both with respect to undermining Jordan-backed talks and to challenging Jordanian equities in Jerusalem. This explanation is even more compelling viewed in the context of Netanyahu working assiduously to bring the Administration in Washington around to his way of thinking on, and dealing with, Iran.
In this context, it was apparent that this semi-freeze would not last much beyond the end of the first quarter of the year, for a number of reasons.
· Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are already nearly dead, so Netanyahu has little to fear in terms of being blamed if a Jerusalem settlement announcement becomes yet another nail in their already well-sealed coffin.
· Israeli insiders in the media are increasingly convinced, it seems, that following Netanyahu’s Washington visit, military action against Iran is off the table for the immediate future, in large part because the Obama Administration won’t support it. With the Obama Administration investing all of its Israel-related political capital in keeping Israel from forcing the issue, it seems likely that Netanyahu will judge – probably accurately – that there will be little or no cost (from the United States) to him going ahead with settlement projects.
· Increasing Palestinian frustrations are giving birth to actions, like protests around Land Day and Jerusalem Day, that provide Netanyahu rationale to use Jerusalem settlement schemes to show the Palestinians and their supporters around the world who’s boss. Any terrorist attack will provide similar rationale.
· The smell of upcoming Israeli elections will likely whet Netanyahu’s appetite for new settlement actions that he can sell to hard-line constituencies.
The Freeze Thaws – and the Settlement Floodgates Re-Open
On April 4, 2012, the Israel Lands Authority (ILA) and the Ministry of Construction published four tenders for 72 units in Har Homa B (one tender for 22 units and a second for 50 units, both within Town Plan 7509). The ILA also published a tender for 4 commercial buildings in Har Homa B (Town Plan 7509). (All the tenders are dated April 3rd, but were published on April 4th).
This means that in a single day, the government of Israel issued tenders for the construction of 872 new East Jerusalem settlement units (plus 4 commercial buildings) – representing a 1.7% increase in the total number of units built in East Jerusalem settlements since 1967.
All of these tenders are significant, but the Har Homa C tenders are especially so, given that this will be the first construction in Har Homa C. As we have written previously, the Har Homa C plan involves construction that is, in it entirety, beyond the existing built-up area of the Har Homa settlement, significantly expanding the footprint of the settlement into a new area in the direction of Bethlehem/Beit Sahour. In doing so, this construction will make a permanent status agreement on Jerusalem incrementally more difficult. For more on this, see this analysis from Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran. A map showing the Har Homa C construction can be viewed/downloaded here.
All of these tenders were in the pipeline and the government had previously announced that this construction would be expedited (for our earlier reporting on this see here). As a result, the government may try to claim that there is no “news” here – that what happened on April 4th was just normal progression of construction that was approved in the past. This is only partially correct, since the current tenders go beyond those “announced” informally in November. Regardless, the fact is that the government of Israel has the authority to prevent these plans from moving if it so chooses – and by the same token, publication of tenders indicates an affirmative decision of the government to go ahead with this new settlement construction. The 800 units planned for Har Homa C are a case in point: the statutory approval process for those units received final approval on August 7, 2011, and tenders could have been issued at any point since that time.
The fact that it did not take place until now indicates that the government of Israel views the timing of publication of tenders as a political tool to be wielded for specific purposes at times of its choosing. The decision to end the freeze – like the decision to impose it in the first place – did not happen by chance. It comes in the context, rather, of what may well be an Israeli government perception that the U.S. and the international community will not pressure it (in part due to Iran talks that are about to begin), and a conscious desire to undermine ongoing diplomatic efforts to resume Israeli-Palestinian talks and ensure that the anticipated Abbas letter to Netanyahu is constructive in tone.
Consequently, both the statutory approval of the plans and the commencement of implementation of the plans (by means of these new tenders) are in integral part of the current, non-routine settlement surge we have noted in recent months.
Finally, as we have also noted previously, the fact that Israel is fast-tracking construction in Har Homa at all in particularly provocative Har Homa is a settlement that was established by Netanyahu (in his previous term as prime minister) post-Oslo, over the strenuous objections of the Palestinians and the international community. It has been a sticking point in previous negotiations and will be perceived as a deliberate provocation by the Palestinians, who have come to view Har Homa as the “flagship” of Israeli unilateral actions in East Jerusalem.
The fact that the freeze during the first quarter of 2012 didn’t last doesn’t mean that the freeze itself wasn’t important. True, it does not change our existing predictions regarding the timeline for the viability of the two-state solution, but just as we saw with the Jerusalem settlement freeze from March-November 2010 (also a partial freeze, for the same reasons as detailed above), the freeze during the first quarter of 2012 demonstrates unequivocally that Netanyahu can quietly freeze settlements in Jerusalem if he chooses to do so and that doing so does not bring down his government or even have a high political cost for him.
At the same time, it is important to recognize that even had this semi-freeze continued, it could not in all probability have been leveraged, on its own, into a renewed political process. Netanyahu believes (and may be correct) that he can only freeze settlements silently, and the Palestinians need it done publicly for it to give them political cover, especially given the partial nature of the freeze (e.g., a silent freeze on government projects gives them zero political cover when settlement activities in Silwan/City of David continue apace).