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News Analysis: New Settlements Likely to Surge, but Impact on Peace is Uncertain

August 7, 1996
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Is a major surge of new building about to begin in the jewish settlements in the West Bank?

The answer, by all accounts, seems to be yes.

After the Israeli Cabinet’s decision last week to end the previous Labor-led government’s declared freeze on the settlements, mayors and council chairmen from a score of settlements dusted off ambitious housing schemes and resubmitted them to the planning authorities for approval.

Will this surge of new building necessarily derail the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority?

Palestinians leaders, in their initial, angry reaction to the Netanyahu government’s move, grimly predicted that it would.

For one thing — as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself has repeatedly pointed out — the previous government, despite its declared construction freeze, in effect countenanced the building or completion of thousands of new homes in the settlements.

According to official statistics, during the past four years of Labor rule, some 40,000 new residents joined the approximately 100,000 Jews who were living in the settlements in 1992. And not all of them were newborns.

Moreover, the settlements — some 130 of them — proved during these past four years not to have been the “obstacle to peace” that they have long been dubbed by successive American administrations.

To the contrary, Israel and the Palestinians made their historic breakthrough to peace in 1993 without then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s offering to remove a single settlement or settler.

Moreover, Palestinian self-rule has been implemented in the intervening period with little change in the intertwined lives of settlers and West Bank Palestinians.

Perhaps most significantly, it is now clear that the Labor government and the Palestinian Authority were advancing dramatically toward a permanent-status accord in which most of the settlers and most of the settlements would have remained in place under Israeli rule.

Coincidentally, just as the new Likud-led government was making its settlement policy clear, a detailed account surfaced about an informal agreement on the permanent status that was reached in 1995 between former Minister Yossi Beilin and Mahmoud Abbas, the No. 2 man in the Palestinian Authority also known as Abu-Mazen.

Yair Hirschfeld, a scholar close to Beilin who was involved in both the 1993 secret negotiations with the Palestinians in Oslo and the secret 1995 talks, disclosed that the informal accord included provisions for a Palestinian state in some 90 percent of the West Bank.

But it also allowed Israel to annex West Bank lands on which more than 70 percent of the settlers live.

The Beilin-Abbas draft also said Jerusalem, in its current municipal limits, would remain united under Israeli sovereignty.

The Palestinians were to establish their capital in Abu Dis, a village just outside the city that is considered part of “Al Quds,” the Holy City, in the Muslim tradition.

In an interview, Beilin indicated that key settler leaders with whom he consulted at the time did not reject the evolving accord out of hand.

He even hinted that he had elicited similar interest from members — whom he declined to name — of the current Likud-led government.

Nonetheless, last week’s Cabinet decision on the settlements was widely expected. But given the ideological commitment of the Likud and several of its coalition partners to the concept of a Greater Israel, political observers said, the decision was relatively moderate.

While removing the restrictions on new building across the board, the Cabinet did not specifically commit the government to any new projects.

And most importantly, it did not pledge to build any new West Bank settlements.

But this is not necessarily how the minister for national infrastructure, the hawkish Ariel Sharon, views the future.

He has already instructed units under his authority to press ahead with new road-building work in the West Bank — and he reportedly intends to have the completed roads flanked by new Jewish buildings.

These may take the form of public service areas — such as shopping malls – – rather than residential settlements.

But they most likely will be constructed deliberately to broaden the areas in the West Bank that were built up by Jews.

Meanwhile, settlement leaders were quick to put forward their local projects for approval and, no less important, for financial support. Government spokesmen, however, say much of the funding for new settlement work must come from the private sector.

Projects include those in:

Alfei Menasheh, where Mayor Shlomo Katan, has plans for 2,500 housing units in his town.

Elkana, a smaller settlement, plans another 100 units.

Ariel, where officials want to see development and landscaping programs that were frozen in mid-execution now brought to fruition with government support.

Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman sent a letter this week to Finance Minister Dan Meridor in which he noted that Ariel had “not built a single home in the past four years” and outlined plans for increasing his town’s population from 15,000 to 25,000.

Gush Etzion, a bloc of 10 settlements near Bethlehem, has plans for a total of 3,000 new homes.

Ma’aleh Adumim, located east of Jerusalem, wants to build 3,000 apartments and 2,000 hotel rooms.

Palestinian officials meanwhile branded the Cabinet decision a “declaration of war” against the peace process; some warned darkly of a resumption of the intifada.

Government sources suggest, however, that a relaxation of the closure of the territories — which Netanyahu pledged Monday during a visit to Jordan — will help ease political pressures in the Palestinian population by improving their economic conditions.

The closure, imposed when Hamas launched the first in a series of terror attacks in Israel in February and March, has been eased in recent weeks to allow some 30,000 Palestinians to return to their jobs in Israel.

The sources suggested that along with the closure’s easing, the Israel Defense Force’s redeployment out of large areas of Hebron, now expected before the end of the month, will also contribute to a better atmosphere between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the short term.

Further down the road, however, a return to widespread and high-profile settlement construction, even if confined to within existing settlements, could well worsen the political situation.

This would prove especially true if the permanent-status negotiations, discontinued since Israel’s May 29 elections, fail to get under way.

In essence, the Beilin-Abbas accord that came to light last week was designed to get around the obstacle posed by the settlements, because both sides predicated their agreement on the creation of Palestinian state.

But the newly elected Netanyahu government is solemnly opposed to the creation of such a state.

Therefore, it is this issue, rather than settlement building, which is likely to form the core of future Israeli-Palestinian disagreements.

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