Mixed Messages

Is Israel’s Government Serious About Peace?

Netanyahu's failure to confront Israel's settler lobby raises questions about his commitment to peace, writes Alan Elsner.

Israel’s latest decision to build hundreds of new apartments in remote settlements in the West Bank is a badly timed blow to the newly resumed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and raises big questions about the government’s true commitment to the peace talks.

Haaretz reported that the Civil Administration, Israel's highest civilian authority in the West Bank, approved construction plans for 878 housing units in isolated settlements. The Defense Ministry must approve the decision before construction can go ahead. The news came after the Israeli Cabinet voted Sunday to establish a new “national priority” list that included a record 90 settlements eligible for state benefits, among them several that had previously been seen as illegal even under Israeli law.

The decision was even more troubling when considered in the light of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s willingness to release over 100 Palestinians convicted of violence and terrorism as part of the agreement that paved the way for a resumption of peace talks.

While he agreed to release the prisoners, Israeli media outlets reported that Netanyahu refused to freeze settlement building or accept that the talks should be conducted on an agreed basis that Israel’s border with a future Palestinian state should be drawn on the basis of the 1967 line plus land swaps.

This raises the question of whether the Netanyahu government values its ability to keep building settlements in areas that the Prime Minister himself has said will have to be evacuated as part of a peace agreement more than it cares about the lives of those potentially put at risk by the release of violent offenders.

In an Israeli cabinet decision over the weekend to expand settlements, cabinet member Amir Peretz, who was one of four ministers to abstain in the vote, said: “This is a political, not national priority which goes against efforts to promote peace." Peretz also noted that settlements were getting preferential treatment at the expense of struggling development communities within pre-1967 Israel, which were not included on the list.

Releasing violent prisoners is always wrenching for Israel and especially for the families of victims—but can be justified if it helps lead to a peace agreement that would end the conflict and guarantee Israel’s future as a democracy and a homeland for the Jewish people. Even as a prisoner release poses short-term threats, a two-state solution would obviously bring long-term security opportunities.

But if at the same time it is releasing prisoners, the Israeli government continues building settlements in a way calculated to sabotage the peace talks, then we should all ask whether the safety of Israeli civilians and soldiers is being sacrificed on the altar of the all-powerful settlement movement.

One could argue that Netanyahu acted the way he did for pragmatic reasons. He knows that the majority in his own Likud Party, as well as his coalition partner, the religious-ultranationalist Jewish Home Party, oppose a two-state solution and favor an immediate Israeli annexation of most of the West Bank.

Tied to the powerful settler movement, these political forces cannot be expected to remain part of a government that negotiates a peace deal that involves evacuating tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank.

Netanyahu may have figured that now was not the time to provoke a crisis and fight that battle. His position will be much stronger if he has an actual agreement to defend that promises the majority of Israelis what they have craved for decades, namely a real peace and end to the conflict with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu is busy pushing through a law that will subject any peace agreement to a referendum. He presumably calculates that he would win such a vote if he can extract the kind of deal he personally would support. Meantime, he needs to keep the coalition stable for the next nine months—the agreed duration of negotiations—and avoid a premature crisis that would once more derail the peace talks.

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The problem is that Netanyahu is not operating solely in a context of Israeli domestic politics. Every settlement move weakens his negotiating partner, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, constricting his ability to make concessions in the negotiations. It also gives credence to Palestinians and others who simply do not believe that Netanyahu is serious about making peace.

Moreover, it will be much more difficult to evacuate settlements that have been enshrined as “legal” by the Israeli authorities than to dismantle outposts that have no official status. And directing state subsidies to the settlements just encourages more people to live in them, which in turn will make them harder to uproot.

Netanyahu could be playing a dangerous game. There may be some logic to keeping the settlers quiet for now but ultimately, he will have to confront and politically defeat them in order to make peace.

He should start preparing for that day now and stop appeasing the opponents of peace.