By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 4, 2009
KIRYAT ARBA, WEST BANK -- Mayor Malachi Levinger does not consider himself a lawbreaker, but when Israeli building inspectors arrived in his West Bank town Tuesday to check for compliance with a newly imposed moratorium on construction in Jewish settlements, he and several dozen local residents blocked their path to ensure that work continued.
Kiryat Arba's residents have not been alone in their vigilance. Inspectors dispatched by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu this week have met resistance throughout the occupied West Bank, including throngs of agitated schoolgirls and more than a few angry officials -- a response that prompted the prime minister to call settler leaders to a meeting Thursday to appeal for cooperation.
Beyond the scuffling, however, Netanyahu's 10-month halt to new building in the settlements has had a demonstrable political impact -- in a single move defusing a disagreement with the Obama administration, winning points in Europe, fixing a looming political crisis for a coalition partner and, as he sees it, putting the onus on the Palestinians to respond with a gesture of their own. If the mood among the settlers is sour -- and many of them are supporters of Netanyahu's Likud party -- the broader benefits may, he reasons, have made that a price worth paying.
In the meeting with settler leaders, Netanyahu "stressed that this is the optimum decision for Israel at this time, if you look at the overall strategic reality," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the prime minister. "This is our confidence-building measure. Now it is in the Palestinians' court. We have moved in an unprecedented manner, and it is time for them to respond."
Demands for a settlement freeze have dogged Netanyahu since he took office in March, with the Obama administration and European countries pressing him on the issue and Palestinians insisting on a freeze before restarting peace talks. Members of his right-leaning coalition, meanwhile, warned that his government might collapse if he capitulated -- a threat heard even in recent days.
But the temporary moratorium he announced last week drew plaudits abroad and had broad support in his cabinet. It headed off a rupture in the Labor Party, whose leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, was facing a possible mutiny by members who felt that the movement of Nobel Peace Prize winner Yitzhak Rabin had no business in Netanyahu's government. Others, including hard-liners, agreed that the step could garner international support at a time when Israel is as concerned with Iran's nuclear program and dealing with a possible war crimes tribunal over Israeli actions in the Gaza Strip last winter as it is with renewing peace talks.
The 10-month clock is ticking, Israeli officials say, adding that if the Palestinians do not respond, settlement building can be resumed, free of the pressure of recent months.
"We took a unilateral decision. We're not getting anything in return," Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said. "We hope the world understands we took the initiative."
The moratorium comes at an awkward time for the Palestinians, whose leadership is mired in internal political problems. It applies to private construction projects but excludes the East Jerusalem neighborhoods that Palestinians want as their capital, exempts public buildings such as schools and synagogues, and excludes about 3,000 apartments and houses whose construction is already underway -- far short of the full freeze Palestinian officials have demanded to restart talks.
Palestinian officials and Israeli peace activists say they suspect Netanyahu agreed to the moratorium knowing of the West Bank leadership's current weakness. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to leave office because of the stalemated peace process.
"They think that . . . because we are the weak side, we have to accept," said Qaddura Fares, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "They speak all the time about the difficulties that the Israeli government faces when they don't care about the difficulties we are facing."
The effect of the freeze on the ground remains unclear. Beyond the various exemptions -- settler leaders pulled on rubber work boots, donned "I'm thawing the freeze" T-shirts and laid the foundation for a new synagogue in the settlement of Efrat on Wednesday to show their determination to keep building -- Netanyahu's government has taken additional measures to blunt the impact.
Settlement mayors, for example, had been stripped of their power to issue building permits, but some of that authority was restored so they could allow home renovations and similar projects.
Shaul Goldstein, head of the Gush Etzion regional council, which oversees settlements from Jerusalem south to Hebron, estimated that construction of 400 to 500 houses will have to be delayed in his area during the moratorium -- a hardship for people who have permits and, in some cases, have paid deposits to builders. Throughout the West Bank, he said, perhaps 2,000 homes and apartments will be delayed.
The larger worry, though, according to Goldstein and other settler leaders, is that precedent has been broken and that the 10-month slowdown could become "the beginning of the end" of steady settlement growth in the West Bank. About 300,000 Israelis live in the territory, in 120 settlements and dozens of unauthorized outposts.
Palestinians want all of that land, occupied by Israel in 1967, for a future Palestinian state, although some of the larger settlements near the likely border are expected to remain part of Israel. Netanyahu said last week that he will be ready to resume building when the moratorium expires and that the settlements' ultimate fate must be negotiated.
In Levinger's office, maps of the Kiryat Arba settlement cover one wall, including outlines of a 20-year plan to double the size of the developed area to nearly 7,500 acres. He intends to see it through, regardless of how many building inspectors show up.
"We are in a process of expansion. They wanted to stop work in the neighborhoods and insisted on confiscating machines," the mayor said. "We've been here for 5,000 years. Since the creation of the universe. And our role is to continue."
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.