Op-Ed: Ill-advised settlement freeze weakened Israel strategically


JERUSALEM (JTA) – On Sunday, Sept. 26, we will celebrate the end of the ill-advised building moratorium in the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).

Ten months ago, Israel unilaterally declared this unprecedented step as a supposed incentive to encourage the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. We now find ourselves in an extremely weakened strategic position as we begin peace talks under threats from all sides that all will be lost unless we extend and increase this freeze on people’s lives. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told me repeatedly in private, as he has told the Israeli people, that all citizens of Israel will be allowed to build again beginning next week. This is the right policy for Israel, and the Likud Party together with a majority of Israeli citizens will provide full backing to the prime minister on this important decision.

There are numerous reasons why the building moratorium policy was the wrong decision at the wrong time for Israel.

Leaving aside the extreme unjust implications on the lives of our citizens, the long-term strategic damage of the freeze is something that must be rectified immediately. Israel has never before declared a building freeze — even when negotiations with the Palestinians were at their most intense under the left-wing governments of Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak.

There was sound strategic thinking behind this policy: Why should we declare at the outset that our historic and legal claims to these lands are less legitimate than those of the Palestinians? Why should we put our peoples’ lives on hold while our Palestinian neighbors continued to build unabated, putting facts on the ground in this disputed territory as they expand their existing cities — even building a brand-new metropolis with full financial and logistic support from the Americans and the Europeans? 

We now enter these negotiations with an extremely dangerous fait accompli: that it is illegitimate to build anywhere in Judea and Samaria, and doing so somehow is more dangerous to the prospects for peace than the thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli population centers by the Hamas regime in Gaza. This is not the ideology of the Likud Party and its coalition partners, who triumphed in the 2009 elections. Rather it’s the viewpoint of extreme left-wing groups that have been discredited at the ballot box. 

From a pure humanitarian standpoint, the freeze has been highly unfair to the Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria. It is important to remember that these Israeli citizens have broken no laws. On the contrary, a vast majority of them were encouraged by successive Israeli governments and all the leading political parties — Labor, Likud and Kadima — to settle in these historic areas. These “settlers” are the cream of the crop of the Israeli population, serving in our most elite army units and active in all parts of Israeli cultural, business and social life. 

Last November, the Israeli government decided out of the blue to essentially freeze their lives. Since then, young couples have been unable to build new homes for which they already had begun paying mortgages. Families have been prohibited from expanding their houses for their growing families. Our government basically has designated the residents of Judea and Samaria as second-class citizens, enacting draconian rules that don’t apply to anyone else in our country.

Some Netanyahu supporters have claimed that the objective of the freeze was to call Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ bluff and unmask his real intentions about his unwillingness to reach a negotiated settlement to this century-old conflict. This, too, is a dangerous strategy that has been tried before. Barak publicly made that argument with reference to Yasser Arafat following the failed Camp David talks in the summer of 2000.

We all know the results of that experiment: almost a decade of Palestinian-instigated bloodshed that claimed the lives of more than a thousand innocent Israeli citizens. We cannot risk repeating this mistake.

It is clear now that our government policy regarding a building moratorium in Judea and Samaria was mistaken from both a moral and strategic standpoint.

The good news is that this mistake can be rectified. If the prime minister and his Cabinet stay true to their word and end the freeze, then we will make clear to our own citizens, the Palestinians and the world our true intentions and goals. We all want peace and an end this conflict, but we are not ready to enact ill-advised, unjust and dangerous policies that only serve extreme elements on all sides while moving us further away from the peaceful and prosperous existence for which we so desperately strive.

(Danny Danon is the deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset and chairman of World Likud.)

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