President Obama, following his meeting with President Mubarak, said yesterday: "There has been movement in the right direction" referring to the reports in the Israeli media that the government of Israel agreed to freeze construction in the settlements and not to issue new construction-tenders until the end of 2009. On one hand, we should be happy, because such a freeze proves that even an extreme right wing government cannot ignore the White House and run wild and build in the territories without limits. But on the other hand, the tenders which the government is freezing, are only a small part of the construction in the territories. On the ground there are several projects under construction in the settlements.
So let us try and understand:
What does "freezing new tenders" mean? About 40 percent of the construction in the settlements in the last few years was initiated by the government; the rest was done privately. Currently, 40 percent percent of the public construction is carried out through tenders. When the government initiates a large construction project it sells it by tender, or bidding, in which it offers the building rights to the highest bidder. The rest of the construction is done without bidding. The last tender for new construction in the settlements and East Jerusalem was nine months ago, in November 2008. Ultimately, even if the government freezes all new tenders, it only applies to part of 40 percent of the construction. The rest is not stopped.
What is the situation on the ground now? According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, at the end of March 2009 (before the Netanyahu government took office) there were 3,073 housing units under construction in the settlements, not including construction in East Jerusalem. Even if some of those buildings have been completed by now, this still means that a couple of thousands of housing units are under construction at this moment. The government has not frozen this construction. It is very hard to know if there is a freeze on other new projects. In many cases the settlers can rely on old permits they were given. There are about 45,000 housing units in the settlements that can theoretically be built on the basis of old building plans that were approved in the past (practically, some of them are not relevant for execution and sometimes additional permits are needed besides approval of the building plan).
It looks as if the government has for the meantime chosen a passive freeze, namely, merely avoiding initiating new projects. But in order to really prevent construction in the settlements an active freeze is needed, which is a stop of construction that has already begun and a halt on projects that were approved in the past but have not been carried out yet.
So, should we be optimistic? As someone who lives in Israel and sees her future here in Israel I have no choice but to be optimistic and always look for the opportunity even when it seems dim. But even pessimists are allowed to be at least a little encouraged. President Obama is trying to bring the sides to start negotiations on a permanent status agreement, in order to finally put an end to the conflict and arrive at a two state solution. In order to begin the process, both sides need to show willingness and seriousness. On the Israeli side this means to stop building in the settlements (because ultimately as part of the two-state solution we will have to evacuate them).
The Netanyahu government has a paradox: On one hand it is the most right wing government Israel has had in many years. The cabinet ministers compete with each other on who will say something more extreme. On the day after the report on the freeze of tenders was published, three cabinet ministers visited the site of the settlement of Homesh, near Nablus, which was evacuated by Israel in the Disengagement, and declared that the settlement should be rebuilt. It is hard to believe that anybody in the Israeli mainstream is really interested in rebuilding the evacuated settlement. The extreme statements were meant only to attract attention.
On the other hand, it has been four months since the government was established and not a single new tender has been published, nor do we know of the approval of any new plans (except one). Netanyahu knows that none of the right-wing ministers in his government have any alternatives. If they decide to quit the coalition he will bring Kadima into his government and all those ministers will remain without influence. Therefore, despite the extreme statements, Netanyahu is definitely vulnerable to pressure and his coalition is pretty stable. Therefore, even though there is not a real freeze yet, I am cautiously optimistic.
Hagit Ofran is the director of "Settlement Watch"- a Peace Now Project Monitoring Settlement Expansion in the West Bank.