Showdown looms over West Bank construction curb

AP News
Posted: Dec 12, 2009 1:46 PM

From this Jewish settlement in the West Bank, calls are mounting for Israeli soldiers to cross a sacred line and defy orders to enforce a slowdown of Israeli construction on lands claimed by the Palestinians.

Anxious to preserve the army's role as the country's great unifier, Israeli authorities have jailed defiant soldiers, issued stern warnings to rebellious rabbis and recommended expelling one seminary from a program combining religious study and military service.

Though still on the fringes, the call to defiance points to the dilemma Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces in trying to mollify the Obama administration and draw the Palestinians back to peace talks by curtailing new settlement building in the West Bank for 10 months.

The Palestinians have not been lured. For them, the real issue is the half million Jewish settlers already living in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, their expanding towns and villages eating away at the Palestinian dream of an independent state.

Palestinians and international critics are skeptical about Netanyahu's freeze, noting that work will continue on some 3,000 apartments and houses already approved, and proceed unimpeded in east Jerusalem, where Palestinians hope to have their future capital.

But the settlers worry that it's the first step toward eventual eviction.

Some have destroyed Palestinian property, blocked inspectors from enforcing the building curbs and rallied 10,000 protesters outside Netanyahu's Jerusalem home last week. The settlers are also raising money to build more homes.

Extremists have taken to attacking Palestinians each time the government acts against settlers in a strategy known as the "price tag." That phrase was scrawled on the wall of a Palestinian mosque not far from Elon Moreh that was attacked by vandals who burned prayer carpets and holy books on Friday, the Muslim day of rest.

"We have a feeling that this (building freeze) won't stop in 10 months, that it will snowball," said Sraya Demsky, standing on a hilltop in Elon Moreh.

The settlement of 2,000 people stands in the area where, according to the Old Testament, God promised Abraham: "To your offspring I will give this land." Settlers regard it as one of the crown jewels of Israel's 40-year drive to populate the West Bank with Jews.

Like most Israeli men, Demsky does annual reserve duty in the military and could conceivably find himself having to take action against his fellow settlers. But the 31-year-old father of four believes God's authority supersedes the army's.

"I wouldn't do it," he said.

The military recently punished six soldiers for refusing to take part in the demolition of two unauthorized settler houses in the West Bank. The ringleaders were educated in Elon Moreh's yeshiva, or seminary.

Matan Vilnai, the deputy defense minister, last week met with Eliezer Melamed, a settler rabbi who has supported insubordination, and threatened to cut off his seminary's funding if he did not publicly recant.

When President Barack Obama took office a year ago, he demanded a complete halt to all Israeli settlement building. Netanyahu refused and Washington backed down, dismaying Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Obama "forced the Palestinian leadership into a corner," said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank. As he sees it, Abbas couldn't let himself appear to be acquiescing in the climbdown. "Mahmoud Abbas can't be any less demanding than Obama," he said.

Paradoxically, scenes of Israeli security forces confronting settlers could help Abbas if they make the Palestinians feel they have wrung a significant concession from Israel.

The settlers also have good reason to be worried. Although their population has mushroomed since Israel first began talking peace with the Palestinians in the 1990s, their political clout has waned.

Israelis are increasingly questioning the wisdom of continuing the occupation of Arab lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war, recognizing that it is a recipe for a binational state in which Palestinians, with their higher birthrates, will eventually outnumber the Jewish population.

In the past, any move to curb settlements risked bringing down the government. This time, insiders say, the hawks will stop short of toppling Netanyahu's coalition in case it's replaced be one willing to make even bigger concessions.

Four years ago Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and evicted its 8,000 settlers, despite their fierce campaign to reverse the order. This time settlers are gearing up for a much harsher struggle.

Despite Netanyahu's image as a hard-liner, even Peace Now, Israel's dovish anti-settlement movement, acknowledges he has gone further than any of his predecessors in reining in settlement construction. Building has been limited for the first time in the major settlement blocs Israel hopes to keep in any final peace deal. Another first is the curtailment of private as well as public construction.

"That is what makes it historic," said Peace Now's Hagit Ofran. "The question is whether there will be enforcement."

Netanyahu has to reconcile conflicting demands in ways that expose him to accusations that he is playing a double game _ portraying himself to the world as eager to negotiate peace, while privately reassuring settlers that the building restrictions are temporary, and that his true aim is to preserve settlements, not dismantle them.

In another controversial measure last week, he proposed special provisions that would mean extra monetary benefits for tens of thousands of settlers

"It's not an easy decision for him. He sees the settlers as loyal Israelis, as proud Israelis, as patriotic Israelis," said Mark Regev, Netanyahu's spokesman. However, "he said publicly a number of times the ultimate status of the settlements will be determined in peace talks between us and the Palestinians."

There is no sign those talks will take place any time soon.