Beit El, West Bank — Two months ago this settlement was the site of a violent clash, when residents sought to block Israeli security forces from enforcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement freeze by demolishing the foundations of a building.
Now, settlers here and throughout the West Bank are in limbo amid the countdown to the expiration of Netanyahu’s 10-month moratorium on housing, which starts on Sept 26. They are hoping there will be a reason for a double celebration because the date coincides with Simchat Torah, the festival marking the annual conclusion and restarting of the recitation of tracts from the Bible in synagogues.
In a region where population growth has tripled over two decades, the temporary ban on building has squeezed communities’ abilities to expand domestic dwellings and public infrastructure. It has also sent a disturbing message to residents that Netanyahu might one day follow Ariel Sharon and evacuate some of the settlers, as happened in Gaza in 2005.
Still, the prevailing sentiment is that the Israeli prime minister won’t dare defy right wingers in his government like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman who are dead set against extending the freeze. But there are those who believe he will cave to pressure from the U.S.
Will Netanyahu publicly give a green light for building in the West Bank, a move that would risk the peace process with the Palestinians and relations with the Obama administration but shore up the confidence of his ideological constituents? Or will he try to enforce a quiet building freeze similar to the unofficial moratorium in Jerusalem, ratcheting up the potential for growing disillusionment and protest on the right?
Some are bracing for what they see as a worst-case scenario.
“It’s not clear what he will do. He might try to weasel out of ending the freeze,” said Dr. Yehuda Buhrer, a 68-year-old founder of the Beit El settlement, which sits on the outskirts of Ramallah. “He has created momentum [for a freeze continuation] that is hard to undo.”
Though the freeze initially appeared to be a tactical maneuver to deflect international diplomatic pressure on the Jewish state, said Buhrer, it has turned out to be a “terrible mistake.”
“The freeze delegitimizes us,” the Beit El founder said. “The freeze means that you’re negotiable. Now [the international community] is holding [Netanyahu] to the freeze.”
To be sure, earlier this week Netanyahu reportedly told a visiting diplomat from Europe that if he were to extend the settlement freeze, he would lose his coalition.
On a tour of settlements in the northern West Bank, Lieberman pledged, “When we took the decision on the settlement freeze, we said explicitly that it was only for 10 months, and that afterward, life would return to the way it was.”
The Palestinians say they won’t agree to direct talks with Israel unless Netanyahu shuts down settlement building altogether. They claim that Israel is promoting a de facto annexation of land they claim in a future state through continued building.
Still, the U.S. is pressing Arab states and the Palestinians to agree to upgrading negotiations from indirect “proximity” talks to face-to-face negotiations.
If direct talks take place, several political analysts have suggested Israel’s government will move to enact a low-profile, undeclared settlement freeze. In such a scenario, while right-wing ministers like Benny Begin will declare the freeze over, on the ground the Israeli military civil administration — controlled by Defense Minister Ehud Barak — will block large building projects.
Netanyahu faces considerable pressure within his government to renew building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. But if momentum on peace talks gains traction and direct negotiations start, “the policy will be no provocation,” said Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel Palestinian Center for Research and Information. Anti-government settlers, on the other hand, will be looking to pick a fight.
“It’s going to be a tough job for Bibi to control the situation,” Baskin said. “I don’t think there will be any declarations one way or another. You’re going to see [settler] leaders laying down the foundations of new buildings. [The government will] have to find an answer for people who are legitimately in a bind with mortgages. But there won’t be announcements of new projects.”
Settler leaders, however, are likely to step up an anti-government campaign in the case of a quiet freeze, according to Uzi Baruch, the news editor at the Beit El-based Arutz Sheva Internet radio station. The freeze was “a slap in the face to the people who voted for him. Netanyahu proved he is not credible, like Ariel Sharon.”
In the settlement of Ofra, just a 10-minute drive from Beit El, elementary school principal Hagit Sela said that plans for a new building have been held up by the freeze. Just before the moratorium was approved, she added a new floor to her house to rent out to young couples looking for a place to live. But now, she says, there is a buzz in the air of preparations to build.
Pinchas Wallerstein, the former head of the settlers’ council, said that there has been a “dramatic” rise in prices because of the housing shortage brought on by the building freeze.
“In Judea and Samaria 2,000 couples marry every year,” he said. “Even if a few couples leave, this creates a very difficult problem of demand for any place.”
Wallerstein added that there is a quiet clampdown on public buildings as well, even though they aren’t formally included.
But in Beit El, foundation work appeared to have just been completed on a new school near the municipal community center.
A stroll through the streets of Beit El this week revealed little outward concern. Instead of anti-building-freeze messages, the entrance to the settlement was lined with advertisements sponsored by the Yesha settlers’ council about encouraging tourism in Judea and Samaria.
“The settlement freeze? Thank God, we’re continuing to build,” replied one yeshiva student waiting at a bus stop.
Ruthie, a 28-year-old mother of three, said her family lives in a mobile home because she cannot afford a permanent house. Nonetheless, she isn’t concerned that one day the government-enforced shortfall of new building might raise prices further.
“Most people don’t think the freeze will continue,” she said. “Illogical things can’t endure for long before people with sense fix it.”
Similar sentiment could be heard in Beit El’s convenience store. In the checkout line, Michal Finkelstein, a Miami native who moved here 18 years ago, said the issue of settlement expansion had been blown out of proportion. “It’s like saying all American problems are from illegal immigration.”
Finkelstein said she also understood that the prime minister was compelled to approve an unprecedented building halt in order to play “the game” of international diplomacy. With less than two months to the end of the moratorium, “I don’t think about it day and night.”
But if the settlers’ expectations were misplaced and the prime minister extends the moratorium, “He would be considered a fool and a traitor in our eyes. But we wouldn’t be surprised.”