TEL AVIV (JTA) — Although the pounding of jackhammers and the dull roar of bulldozers still can be heard across Jewish settlements in the West Bank, no new construction has been approved for Jews in the area since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government came to office.
“Everything you hear about being built now was approved long ago,” Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror said.
Settler leaders and anti-settlement activists confirmed Dror’s assessment.
Amid heightened tensions between Washington and Jerusalem over the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the Netanyahu government’s withholding of approval for new building plans in the settlements is a concession intended to head off a major confrontation with the United States, some analysts said.
It’s not clear, however, how many plans — if any — have come across the government’s desk for authorization. The approval process for new West Bank construction is lengthy and bureacratic.
“The relationship with the United States is more important to Netanyahu than settlements,” said Jonathan Rynhold, an expert in U.S.-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University, where the prime minister announced last month for the first time that he would conditionally accept the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.
“He does not want to lose his credibility with the Americans. He says that you don’t have to do everything they say, but that you do have to be reasonable. Otherwise you will lose all your backing when there are more important issues on the agenda, like Iran.”
On Sunday at his weekly Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu used the phrase “two states for two peoples” for the first time.
On the issue of illegal outposts, the Netanyahu government has assured U.S. officials that it will dismantle some of the settlement outposts built without Israeli permission. There is some dispute over just how many Israel should dismantle: the 24 unauthorized settlements established before 2001 or the 100 or so illegal outposts documented in both Israeli and U.N. reports.
A handful of tiny and more recently established outposts have been dismantled since Netanyahu came to power in March. But their occupants have quickly re-established their presences — part of an ongoing cat-and-mouse game between some settlers and the Israeli government.
President Obama has called for an immediate halt to all settlement building.
Netanyahu has countered that settlements should be able to expand for “natural growth” — not expropriating or buying any new lands, but building where land already has been acquired in order to accommodate the natural growth of existing settlements.
While the Netanyahu government has not approved any new settlement construction, even for “natural growth,” enough building plans already have been approved to keep settlement construction going for years, say Israeli critics of the settlements.
Hagit Ofran, who heads Peace Now’s Settlement Watch division, says Netanyahu could go further.
“He could say today that all construction is stopping and we would see no building at all,” Ofran said.
She said some 3,000 housing units are currently under construction using permits granted under the previous government. Settler leaders say that is an inflated figure.
Ofran also said that funding for settlements and their development are part of the recently approved national budget — including the ongoing construction of several roads and other building sites.
Pinchas Wallerstein, a senior leader in the Yesha Council, the umbrella settler organization, said the movement has been heartened that at least verbally, Netanyahu supports them and their demands for natural growth. But with no new construction permits on the immediate horizon, Wallerstein said his neighbors in the settlement of Ofra are building additions to their existing homes.
As crunch time approaches with the Americans and the call for dismantling illegal outposts grows louder, Netanyahu knows he might need new coalition partners for his government, which relies on right-wing parties, to survive.
By saying, as he did in the Cabinet meeting, that his government has made a two-state solution part of the national consensus, he appeared to be reaching out to the largest of his potential partners — Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party. But in a sign that any attempt to woo Kadima into his coalition faces great hurdles, Livni on Monday dismissed Netanyahu’s talk of two states for two peoples.
“The prime minister still does not really believe that this is the right path for Israel,” Livni said at the Knesset, “but he understands that this is the right thing to say.”