Why Is Israel On a Settlement-Construction Spree?

The Israeli prime minister's controversial plans, condemned around the world, are about more than just punishing the Palestinians.

The Israeli prime minister's controversial plans, condemned around the world, are about more than just punishing the Palestinians.

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A construction site in Gilo, on land Israel captured in 1967 and annexed to its Jerusalem municipality, on January 16, 2011. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Over the past few weeks, the Israeli government has been on a building spree. First came word that planning and zoning would begin for E1, a controversial move that would further encircle East Jerusalem with settlements -- cutting off from the West Bank the part of the city Palestinians demand to be the capital of their future state. As part of the same announcement, Israel said that it was going to build more housing in other parts of the West Bank as well.

This week, the government approved 1500 new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem -- the same housing units whose initial announcement in 2010 during Vice President Biden's visit to Israel caused a temporary rift between the United States and Israel and Hilary Clinton's chewing-out of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The Interior Ministry and the Jerusalem Local Committee are also expected to approve plans to build in Givat Hamatos and Gilo this week, both of which are new Jerusalem neighborhoods that are also across the 1967 armistice line that divides East and West Jerusalem.

This is all taking place despite enormous pressure and condemnation from Western countries, who are not happy with the escalation of Israeli plans to expand settlements or to build up Jerusalem neighborhoods that challenge the viability of a future Palestinian state. Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal are about to formally condemn Israel over its East Jerusalem building plans, and the 14 non-American members of the United Nations Security Council are going to do the same. Even the United States seems to have lost its usual patience with the Israeli government, deeming the new building announcements part of a "pattern of provocative action" that endangers the peace process and the two-state solution. Israel seems hell-bent on isolating itself over the settlement issue, and appears determined to move ahead with plans for both the West Bank and East Jerusalem no matter the cost.

It is easy to chalk this up to Israel's fury with the Palestinian Authority's statehood bid at the United Nations, as the E1 announcement came the day after the vote, amidst stated determination on Israel's part to punish the Palestinians for pursuing unilateral moves outside of the Oslo framework. "We felt if the Palestinians were taking unilateral action in the UN, we had to also send the message that we could take unilateral actions," Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren said this week, making the connection explicit.

Yet, this does not account for the scope of the recent Israeli announcements, or for the seeming recklessness of drawing real anger and censure from Israel's Western allies immediately following American and EU support during Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza. There is indeed something else going on here, and it has nothing to do with the Palestinians and everything to do with the political jockeying taking place on the right of Israel's political spectrum before Israelis go to the polls on January 22 to elect their next government.

When Netanyahu created the joint list between Likud and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, the thinking behind the move was to create a right-wing monolith that would not only handily win the election, but also present rightwing voters without a real alternative. Not only was the plan to keep Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu voters, but to recapture the erstwhile Likud voters who had cast their ballots for Kadima in the past two elections and would now, with Kadima's imminent disappearance, have nowhere else to go.

For Netanyahu though, the joint list was also about eliminating any challenges to him from his right flank. Following the debacle of his short-lived unity government with Kadima and the call for early elections after the fighting and unresolved impasse over Haredi and Arab military service, Netanyahu was afraid that Lieberman was going to outflank him on the right by appealing to nationalist issues. Netanyahu assumed that by co-opting Lieberman, he would have no real rightwing challengers sniping at him.

Instead, it turns out that Netanyahu is dealing with both external and internal challenges from the right. First is Naftali Bennett's nationalist Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party, which has siphoned off enough voters from Likud that it is now polling as the third largest party behind only Likud-Beiteinu and Labor, likely to garner at least 10-12 seats in the Knesset. Bennett, who used to be Netanyahu's chief of staff, is confident enough that he has already been demanding that Netanyahu drop Haredi parties from his next coalition and give security portfolios to aspiring Habayit Hayehudi ministers.

Within his own party, the Likud primary created a list of Knesset candidates that is the most right-wing in Likud history and includes perennial Netanyahu challenger Silvan Shalom in the fourth slot, as well as Netanyahu antagonist and settler champion Moshe Feiglin, who was not even a Knesset member in the current government. Feiglin, Danny Dannon, Ze'ev Elkin, Yariv Levin, and other Likud members who will be MKs in the next Knesset are already wary of Netanyahu and will be constantly pushing him to the right under the constant threat of challenging his leadership of the party.

Netanyahu is now facing a scenario in which his rightwing credentials are being challenged before the election in ways that he did not expect. The easiest way for him to staunch the bleeding of voters to Habayit Hayehudi and quiet the grumblings within Likud over his leadership is to back settlements to the hilt; Netanyahu has taken this strategy and run with it. Settlements are the most important issue for Israel's right wing, even above forestalling negotiations with the Palestinians or confronting Iran.

Likud is at its heart a settler party, and Habayit Hayehudi represents a fusion of settlements and nationalism. Given the predilections within both parties, Netanyahu has little choice but to keep on pushing settlement growth in the West Bank and continued building in East Jerusalem no matter how much heat he takes from the United States, the EU, the UN, or anyone else. As long as Netanyahu faces challenges from his right before the election, nothing is going to deter the recent string of building announcements, including continuing pressure from the West.

So while the Israeli government's recent spree of developing neighborhoods and towns in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is certainly in part a response to the Palestinian UN vote, focusing solely on that misses much of the story. The churning taking place in Israel's right wing and the domestic political calculus during this election season are driving the Netanyahu government's policies that are causing so much angst in Washington and Turtle Bay. As is so often the case in Israel, all politics is local.