Why is Israel ‘opening up the settlement floodgates’ just as peace talks start?

August 12, 2013

An Israeli woman walks past construction in the East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli officials announced Sunday that they had approved 1,200 new settlement homes in the West Bank, outraging many Palestinians. The timing is especially conspicuous, just a few short weeks into the Israel-Palestine peace process relaunched by the Obama administration.

This is not the first time that Israel has met peace talks with settlement expansion. In 2010, Vice President Biden traveled to the region as part of a peace push only to be greeted by news of 112 new settler homes. This February, Israel approved 90 settler homes in advance of President Obama's visit. As far back as 1991, then-Secretary of State James A. Baker told Congress in a hearing on stalled peace efforts, "Nothing has made my job of trying to find Arab and Palestinian partners for Israel more difficult than being greeted by a new settlement every time I arrive."

There are a few different theories for why the Israeli government does this. The most prevalent is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely trying to appease more hard-line members of his government, who might be unhappy with Netanyahu's decision to release 104 Palestinian prisoners, a concession to the peace process. Other theories are that Israeli officials are seeking to improve their negotiating position by approving settler construction that they can later roll back, that they're trying to deliberately undermine the peace process or that they want to humiliate Palestinian leaders and weaken them within Palestinian politics.

I put these theories and other questions to Daniel Seidemann, who founded Terrestrial Jerusalem, an NGO that works on Jerusalem- and peace process-related issues. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

WorldViews: This obviously isn't the first time that Israel has responded to a beat in the peace process with an announcement of settlement expansion, but the numbers seem higher than usual. What's going on?

Daniel Seidemann: This is a surge. This isn't self-restraint, it can only be interpreted as an effort to humiliate the Palestinians on their way into the negotiating room, and I have doubts as to whether they'll be able to remain.

WV: Do you think that's the idea, to force the Palestinians to throw up their hands and walk away from the table?

DS: I would say this is, what's the legal term, "wanton indifference"? I've been predicting for the last week that Netanyahu would be doing something, because that's his pattern. Whenever he does anything that can be interpreted as conciliatory to the Palestinians, he does something in Jerusalem. He's always done that. But this goes well beyond what I'd anticipated. So I think that this is his opening up the settlement floodgates to placate his right flank, and either being indifferent or miscalculating the effect that this will have on the Palestinians.

WV: So you think that this is more about internal Israel politics than about the peace process?

DS: Look, six months ago, Netanyahu did not want a political process. He had hoped that [new Secretary of State John] Kerry would leave him alone quickly. His goal was, I believe, to have Kerry go away without leaving fingerprints, that he would not get blamed. I think that Kerry has been successful in making it extremely expensive, both for Netanyahu and for Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] to be viewed as having caused his failure.

Netanyahu, I think he's serious when he says that Israel has an interest in conducting talks. He doesn't say reaching an agreement but in conducting talks. [Max here: Click here to see what we've written on this theory previously] However, he is not willing to expend major domestic capital on this, and if the price of going back to talks is placating his own party by settlement expansion, he's going to do that.

I think he's miscalculated. I think that we're heading for a crisis over the next several days and that this is a crisis that Netanyahu will be completely blamed for.

WV: Really, you don't think he sees the backlash coming? I always get the sense that they're very aware of the international response.

DS: I don't think he would have allowed these approvals had he fully understood what's coming. But I may be wrong. Don't forget that the Palestinians are not looking for a pretext. And it's not because they're angelic, it's because Kerry has made it abundantly clear to them that they'll pay a price if they walk, if they bolt. But the approval of this many units in this short a time, 48 hours before negotiations, is just too much.

WV: This is kind of a pattern, right? I know that the numbers are high this time and I'm not trying to downplay the significance, but it seems like there's been a number of times when they're about to have meetings with the Americans or there are about to be talks about talks about talks, and sure enough there are new settlements approved.

DS: You can go back to Jim Baker, who appeared before Congress in 1991 and said, "Nothing has made my job of trying to find Arab and Palestinian partners for Israel more difficult than being greeted by a new settlement every time I arrive." That's 1991.

There have been occasions, I believe it was September of 2009, [U.S. envoy to the Middle East George] Mitchell was meeting with [Netanyahu aide Yitzhak] Molcho to conclude the resumption of talks, and there was an announcement of new settlements. But I can tell you, I was involved in that, that was a blunder. Netanyahu did not know that was coming. And he found out about the announcement when Mitchell told him about it. That's no longer the case, there is no way that we've had an announcement of this many new units [this week], there is no way that Netanyahu can dissociate himself from this.

WV: Would he dissociate himself from it? I would think that, if part of the rationale is internal Israel politics, then he would want to be seen as associated with it.

DS: The fact of this is not surprising. Netanyahu clearly did not want the headlines of the newspapers to be monopolized by a release of [Palestinian] prisoners, because a refusal to release prisoners has been his political raison d'être since the 1980s. He wants that to appear alongside us sticking it to the Palestinians.

WV: Do you think that is just a one-off effort to change the headlines or is it part of a broader, systemic change in approach?

DS: If this will be indicative of limited, episodic settlements that are done around the time of prisoner releases, then this can be contained. If it's limited. If this is an indication of an ongoing issue, then there are not going to be talks.

Already, yesterday, the indications were that this might be something that goes beyond episodic. But it could be contained. This many units in so short a time is much more than the traffic can bear.

Tomorrow night there will be the release of 26 prisoners. There are going to be three more payments of 26 prisoners each over the next four months. The price of these 26 prisoners has been a very large number of residential units. If this happens, you're going to have on the order of maybe 8,000 units during negotiations? Are you kidding me? So either the calculus is going to change or there will not be talks.

WV: One theory I've seen is that construction is approved but it won't start for a while and won't finish for a while, so maybe it's just a negotiating tactic, something to strengthen Israel's hand going into talks. Do you buy that?

DS: I've been in this business for 21 years, and I have heard and believed often that "this is only a plan." And there are tens of thousands of "only plan" units out there, and the kids who live in those "only plan" units are really cute. Okay? Settlement plans are guns that are put on the table, alright?

WV: I have to say, you sound not optimistic.

DS: Number one, I was modestly optimistic last week. I think it's very easy to underestimate Kerry, he should not be underestimated. I think he's doing quite a remarkable job. And I am not despondent now. There is such a clarity over the consequences of the Kerry initiative failing that there is still a possibility of salvaging the talks. But that is not going to be done on the cheap, it's not going to be finessed.

I think there's going to be blood on the walls over the next few days. The prospect of the Palestinians pulling out, with good reason, is not small. The consequences of this internationally are very high. I think we're about to see a mini-drama.

WV: For talks to move forward, what would have to happen with the new settlement tenders? Or is it just too late, they're already out there?

DS: The tenders are out there but the government can decide not to award them. Until the contracts are awarded, the Israeli government is at liberty. In fact, almost half of the units that were tendered yesterday are re-runs. They're scraping the bottom of the barrel so they're recycling old tenders that have failed in the past.

WV: That seems like a sign for some optimism, then, right? Because they're not yet necessarily facts on the ground, as they say.

DS: I wish you were right, but these areas are bound to be developed. They marketed, last year, 973 units in Har Homa [an East Jerusalem settlement]. They didn't succeed in marketing 80 of them. Did that change anything? No.

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Max Fisher | August 12, 2013