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Olmert's Legacy in the Occupied Territories: Strengthening the Settlement Blocs

Written by Benn, Aluf

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July 27, 2008
by Benn, Aluf
INSS Insight no. 65
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's legacy vis-à-vis the occupied territories will be a strengthened Israeli hold on the settlement blocs west of the security fence, in particular around Jerusalem. Olmert’s fundamental approach views the security fence as Israel’s de facto border, and is the basis of his decisions regarding new construction in the territories and his positions in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
 “Dividing the land in order to ensure a Jewish majority is the lifeline of Zionism,” Olmert declared when presenting his government to the Knesset in May 2006.

Since the Annapolis summit, government tenders for construction of thousands of apartments east of the Green Line have been made public. Almost all of these are located in Jerusalem’s outlying Jewish neighborhoods and in the settlements close to the city, including tenders for 428 housing units in Har Homa, 760 in Pisgat Ze’ev, 440 in East Talpiyot, 350-550 in Givat Ze’ev, 286 in Beitar Illit, 52 in Elkana, and 48 in Ariel, and there is reportedly a plan for building another 80 units in Efrat. In addition, the Regional Planning and Construction Committee in Jerusalem approved submission of a plan to build 3,150 housing units in Givat Hamatos and 393 in Neve Ya’akov. No tenders were published for construction east of the security fence.[1]

While the extensive building plans have aroused international criticism of Israel, including from the American administration, for fear that construction is liable to impact negatively on the political negotiations with the Palestinians, this criticism has not been translated into actual pressure on Olmert’s government to change its policies.

When elected prime minister in the spring of 2006, Olmert's primary stated objective was to establish a defined border between Israel and the future Palestinian state, and evacuate the residents of the settlements east of the border. Analysis shows that the government has acted to advance this objective, albeit at a slow pace. The government sought to establish the route of the security fence as Israel’s de facto border, while avoiding confrontation with the settlement population and the international community. The principal tools were extensive building within the settlement blocs and an attempted freeze on construction east of the fence. Though not official government policy, the line of the security fence served Olmert and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak as the guideline for new building permits in the settlements.

The Olmert government has shied away from discussing its policies on the settlements in larger forums (the government, the cabinet). The prime minister has generally avoided making public reference to construction beyond the Green Line, and has preferred to speak about the political process and the peace efforts. Minister of Housing Ze’ev Boim has positioned himself as the great promoter of strengthened settlements blocs and Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Within his authority as defense minister, Barak either approved or rejected construction plans for the West Bank. The involvement of the prime minister in building permits remained behind the scenes, which spared Olmert direct international criticism.

Olmert has also avoided evacuating settlements from the West Bank, whether by force or by offering compensation to those leaving voluntarily. Once he embarked on a political course, he presented the settlements east of the fence as a bargaining chip in his negotiations with PA president Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert proposed that Israel withdraw more or less to the fence line, or somewhat westward, and evacuate the settlements east of it in two stages. With the signing of the agreement of principles and determination of the future border, the Voluntary Evacuation-Compensation bill will be passed and the settlement residents offered a chance to move to Israeli territory. The rest of the settlement population would be evacuated once the agreement is implemented and the Palestinian state is established. In exchange, the Palestinians will agree to Israel building and developing the settlements west of the yet-to-be-determined border, i.e., in the area to be annexed to Israel with Palestinian agreement.

With the start of negotiations at Annapolis, the rate at which permits for large building projects in the settlement blocs were issued increased, and the Palestinian Authority, with international support, accused Israel of undermining the talks. However, the criticism was muted and Olmert apparently figured that as long as there are talks about the establishment of a Palestinian state and the United States is in the midst of a presidential election campaign, the international community is not about to confront Israel over new construction in the settlement blocs. And indeed, the criticism of Israel has come in very low doses and has not exceeded the familiar lip service of “the settlements are an obstacle to peace.”

The Bush administration tacitly accepted Ariel Sharon’s notion that Israel be allowed to build in the settlement blocs if it avoids expanding the settlements beyond the fence and avoids controversial projects, first and foremost the neighborhood planned for the E-1 area near Ma’ale Adumim. Olmert has upheld this agreement; he has avoided development of E-1 except for the construction of a police station that began during Sharon’s tenure.

Like his predecessor, Olmert has repeatedly dodged promises to the American administration to dismantle the illegal outposts in the West Bank. Since the violent clash in the Amona outpost soon after he succeeded Sharon, Olmert has avoided other evacuations by force. This position enjoyed the support of Minister of Defense Barak and the heads of the IDF, the General Security Service, and the police. The government also made several requests to the Supreme Court to postpone the evacuation of the largest illegal outpost, Migron, which was ostensibly established on private Palestinian land.

Instead of confrontation, the government – through the Minister of Defense – has tried to reach an agreement with the settlement leadership about voluntary evacuations in exchange for moving the residents to approved settlements. To date, four of the twenty-six illegal outposts established after March 2001 – which Israel promised to evacuate in fulfillment of its roadmap obligations – have been evacuated in this manner. However, the process is moving along at a snail’s pace, and the American administration has avoided exerting pressure on Olmert to fulfill his promise to evacuate the illegal outposts.

During its two years in office, the Olmert government has acted to establish the line of the security fence as Israel’s de facto border. However, by avoiding confrontations with the settlement population, it has chosen the easy route of strengthening Israel’s hold west of the fence. Meanwhile, decisions regarding maintaining settlements beyond the fence and the extent of those settlements are on hold.

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[1] Announcement by Minister of Construction and Housing Ze’ev Boim about tenders for 121 housing units in Har Homa and 760 in Pisgat Ze’ev, “as a present to Jerusalem,” June 3, 2008, and the announcement of an earlier tender for 307 housing units, February 14, 2008; a tender by the Israel Land Administration for lots for 440 housing units in East Talpiyot, Globes, July 10, 2008; a tender for 286 housing units in Beitar Illit, May 21, 2008; announcement about construction in Givat Ze’ev: announcement by the Ministry of Construction and Housing about a tender for 350 housing units, May 21, 2008, Minister Boim’s directive to renew construction in the Agan Ha’ayalot part of Givat Ze’ev, March 9, 2008, Boim’s statements about building 550 housing units in Agan Ha’ayalot and his intention to present another 750 housing units in Givat Ze’ev for approval  made in an interview with Ynet, March 10, 2008; Boim’s statements, in the same interview with Ynet, concerning construction in Elkana, Ariel, and Efrat; the procedures for approving Givat Hamatos and Neveh Ya’akov construction plans (5834A, 5834C, 6513A) were published on the Jerusalem Municipality website.

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