Co-authored by Lara Friedman
While all eyes are focused these days on Gaza, around the corner awaits another huge challenge to nascent peace efforts: the September 26th expiration of the settlement moratorium.
On that day the moratorium will expire automatically. Meaning that if the government simply does nothing, settlement construction can re-start as if there had never been a moratorium. Any other outcome will be a heavy lift politically, inviting further pressure, especially from within the coalition, from those members who do not want to vote, again, against the settlements.
If the moratorium is not extended, these past 10 months will have had no significance on the ground - either in terms of settlement construction (which never stopped) or political impact (since the failure to stop construction contributed to the failure to build of confidence). Worse still, the moratorium may actually end up having laid the groundwork for a major increase in settlement construction, with settlers working hard, in advance of the expiration, to gain approval for new projects to be implemented as soon as the moratorium ends.
Only if the moratorium is extended for a significant period of time - with no new loopholes or exceptions - will it eventually mean that there will be a visible freeze, which could contribute significantly to confidence in the peace process.
The government has the ability, politically, to extend the moratorium and remain in power. The fact that the settlement moratorium was adopted in the first place is evidence of this. Netanyahu's coalition continues to be stable. His right-wing coalition partners know that if they leave the coalition to protest the settlement moratorium, the Kadima party will quickly take their place. The fact that this right-wing government survived the imposition of what is theoretically the most far-reaching settlement freeze in history shows that when pressed, this government can abandon its hard-line rhetoric for more pragmatic policies, without losing the coalition or from any external opposition and with little opposition (since most of the right-wing parties are in the coalition). This demonstrated stability undermines any political excuses Netanyahu might offer for refusing to extend the freeze past September.
Moreover, the Israeli public is prepared to accept serious compromises on settlements. Six months into the moratorium there has been no real public objection to the moratorium or any public outcry against extending it. While the settlers continue to try to build public sympathy for their cause, what they have encountered from the start is primarily indifference. The likelihood of the settlers being able to mobilize large-scale Israeli opposition to extending the moratorium - especially in the face of what will no doubt be a high political cost for Israel if it decides to end the moratorium - is extremely low, and the settlers and the government know this.
There is no doubt Netanyahu will argue that he cannot afford to take such action. And it is now generally understood that Netanyahu's insistence on 10 months (rather than, say, a year) for the duration of the moratorium reflected his desire - some would call it cynical, other savvy - to make the end of the moratorium coincide with the run-up to November's US mid-term elections. His assumption being that during this period the Obama Administration will find it nearly impossible to pressure Israel to extend the moratorium, given how such pressure might play in the elections. It remains to be seen if his assumption is correct.
For a comprehensive analysis of the settlement moratorium at six months see: http://peacenow.org/entries/settlements_moratorium_six-month_accounting