Tel Aviv — The abandoned stone building in the West Bank city of Hebron lies just steps from the Cave of the Patriarchs, a site holy to Muslims and Jews and infamous as a flashpoint of religiously inspired bloodshed.
Last week, the building became the site of the latest wrangle over Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank, as a group of settlers took up residence in the building claiming they had legally purchased the property. Establishing a toehold in the buildings would mean the most significant expansion of the tiny but highly fortified Jewish enclave that lives in daily tension with tens of thousands of Palestinians from Hebron.
But Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon balked and sent in riot police to extract the settlers until determining the transaction was legitimate and not forged. Amid political outrage from the government’s pro-settlement constituency (and despite criticism of the expansion among anti-settlement peaceniks), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that the evacuation would be just temporary.
“Hebron is a key part of the Jewish identity and narrative, and the Cave of the Patriarchs is a key foundational stone,” said Yishai Fleisher, the international spokesman for the Israeli community in Hebron. “The question is: Are Jewish people going to be in Hebron or not?”
It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu and Yaalon will authorize a new Jewish outpost in Hebron, but the political standoff has been accompanied by several other announcements suggesting a new expansionist trajectory in Judea and Samaria: the declaration of at least 380 acres of open territory northwest of the Dead Sea as “state land”; building authorizations for about 150 new housing units in West Bank settlements — the first in more than a year; and the expansion of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc southward to include an old church compound.
The struggle over the building highlights a seeming crossroads for Netanyahu’s direction on settlements. With no peace process on the horizon and a coalition dominated by pro-settlement politicians, will he give the green light for settlement growth that will mean the de facto end of the two-state solution by making a Palestinian state unworkable? Or, with U.S. and Europe complaints getting louder by the day, will he seek to limit building to settlement blocs rather than isolated enclaves like Hebron?
Whatever the answer is, there is one consensus that spans the Israeli political spectrum: When it comes to Israel’s policy on the West Bank, the prime minister lacks a clear strategic direction, neither annexing land, heading toward a two-state compromise or a unilateral compromise.
“Ambivalence is the zeitgeist of the day,” said Fleisher. “If we aren’t moving forward, we are moving backward. There is no status quo.”
Netanyahu has come under attack in the last two weeks both inside and outside the government for his approach. Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party last week assailed Netanyahu and Yaalon for fossilized strategic thinking, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said that the U.S. is “perplexed and concerned” at Israel’s efforts to legalize unauthorized outposts and expropriate West Bank land as being out of sync with its declared policy of supporting a two-state solution.
“There’s a lack of strategic decision,” said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on Israel.
Without an overarching strategy for the West Bank, Sachs says Israel’s policy in the settlements is led by “bureaucratic drift” and private initiatives of settler activists. Though Netanyahu himself is not a maximalist when it comes to settlements and would probably prefer to limit expansion to settlement blocs, he’s also not willing to waste political capital in fights with the settler lobby.
“What we’re seeing now is the influence of people in government that absolutely want to prevent a two-state solution, and want to build everywhere,” Sachs said. “The strategic vacuum allows things to move forward.”
Indeed, on Monday, Likud minister Yariv Levin criticized Yaalon for foot-dragging on the Hebron buildings, alleging in an Israel Radio interview that it is “discriminatory to create a situation where [settlers] have to wait for years to enter a place they bought lawfully.” In response to the political uproar, Netanyahu promised to establish a government committee on settlements that would make such decisions instead of just the defense minister — who is legally responsible for policies in Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank.
Some 800 Israelis live in a handful of enclaves inside of Hebron, a city with 200,000 Palestinians. Under the 1996 agreement to withdraw from the city, Israel’s army remained in about 20 percent of the city to protect the enclaves and the Tomb of the Patriarchs. In the Israeli-controlled zone, Palestinians must pass through army checkpoints to move around their neighborhoods. In some locations Palestinian vehicles are banned entirely.
“The settlers of Hebron continue with their messianic and violent mission of Judaization of the city of Hebron, while those who will pay for their bullying are IDF soldiers, Israeli citizens and Palestinian residents of the city,” read a Facebook statement from Breaking the Silence, an organization of IDF veterans, many of whom served in Hebron.
“We were part of the 650 soldiers who protect extremist settlements in Hebron on a daily bases, for decades. The new settlement will only bind more soldiers to missions of blocking roads, locking up shops and creating a sense of persecution amongst the Palestinian residents living in its midst.”
Yoaz Hendel, a former Netanyahu adviser, also agreed that settlement moves in the West Bank lack a clear vision.
“I wouldn’t call it a policy, but it’s a window onto what the government considers natural growth of the settlements in Judea and Samaria,” he said, referring to the settlement moves.
Hendel argued that the apparent momentum for pro-settler members of the government is the fault of the Obama administration, which allegedly undercuts Netanyahu’s political standing among right-wingers by refusing to accept building in Israel’s settlement blocs.
“The Obama administration has no intention to distinguish between Jordan Valley, and the north of the Dead Sea — which is part of the consensus — and Yitzhar,” he said. “This administration defines everything as illegal.”
Hendel said that Netanyahu remains opposed to a binational state, and would eventually seek to create a Palestinian entity on the parts of the West Bank that they already control — accounting for about 40 percent of the territory.
Dror Etkes, an independent settlement monitor, said all of Netanyahu’s moves are guided by a competition in the government to curry favor with the hard-right constituency. The land tract that was nationalized north of the Dead Sea has strategic value for Israel because of its proximity to the highway linking Jerusalem to the Allenby Bridge border crossing with Jordan.
“It’s a classic Netanyahu move. Domestically, he says ‘I’m a tough guy.’ To the international community, he’ll say, ‘What do you want, we haven’t changed anything.”
He continued, “This is another clear sign of a Netanyahu divorce of any kind of two-state solution. He is saying, ‘Hey, I’m not committed to any practical moves.’”
The upcoming year, with the U.S. focused on elections, and no peace talks, will put the current conservative-dominated settlement policy to the test, Sachs said. The Brookings analyst said he expected that Netanyahu would probably continue as he has done in the past, avoiding dramatic moves in either direction.
“His vision is much more of conservative, cautious one — I don’t think a grand move is in the cards,” he said. “What we have seen from Netanyahu in previous years is the best guide to what we will see in the coming year.”