The decision broke with a policy that Israel has held for 20 years: no new settlements will be established. Right-wing Israeli governments, in particular, have broadcast that policy as part of their international PR efforts. Yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his most senior ministers granted official approval last week to three West Bank settlements. No big deal, say government spokesmen.
"This is only a technical matter," Netanyahu's staffers told U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro, the Daily Ma'ariv reported on Sunday. There's actually a measure of truth in that claim—but that dollop of truth is an indictment of 20 years of settlement policy.
The settlements of Rehelim, Brukhin, and Sansanah already exist. They are just three of the settlements erected over the last two decades with the government's aid and abetment. The ministerial decision merely relabels a rogue operation as an official action. If hypocrisy is tribute that vice pays to virtue, this is the moment when vice stops coughing up the tribute. Or, in diplomatic terms, it is the moment when the client state decides that it no longer needs to pay any attention to the preferences of its patron in Washington.
The freeze on new settlements dates to 1992, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin began seeking a peace agreement with the Palestinians. In 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu's first government officially lifted the freeze, but retained a requirement that the cabinet had to approve any new Israeli community in the West Bank. Such approval hasn't been granted. Even right-wing governments have wanted to avoid a firestorm of foreign criticism.
Yet the freeze on new settlements has always been a remarkably unconvincing act of public relations. For one thing, existing settlements have kept growing rapidly. According to official figures, 116,000 Israelis lived in the Gaza Strip and West Bank at the end of 1992. By 2010, after the evacuation of the Gaza Strip settlements, there were 311,000 Israelis in the West Bank. Some settlements grew from villages to large towns in that time. The official statistics don't include Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, but the Jewish population there has grown from roughly 150,000 in the mid-1990s to nearly 190,000 today.
Besides that, about 100 new settlements have, in fact, been established in the West Bank. Often consisting of a few mobile homes, they're known as "outposts." Put aside the question of whether settlement in occupied territory is legal under international law. The outposts are illegal under the laws that Israel itself uses to rule the West Bank. They lack cabinet approval and building permits. Some are built on privately owned Palestinian land. But once you're breaking the law, why worry about property rights?
Superficially, outpost-building is a wildcat effort by settler radicals. But as a 2005 study by attorney Talia Sasson showed, government agencies have not only ignored the lawbreaking, they helped build the outposts. The Housing Ministry spent millions of dollars on the effort. Sasson implicated officials including Netanyahu's chief of staff during his first term, Avigdor Lieberman—today Israel's foreign minister. Though Sasson's report doesn't mention Ariel Sharon's role, settlers' testimony—to me and other journalists—indicates that as a cabinet member and then prime minister, Sharon oversaw the entire effort. The location of the outposts—filling in gaps between older settlements and separating Palestinian communities—fits Sharon's strategy for blocking creation of a contiguous Palestinian state.
Eventually, the façade of law and policy began to crack. Sharon himself commissioned Sasson's report, apparently because George W. Bush's 2003 "road map" for Israeli-Palestinian peace required Israel to evacuate outposts established after Sharon became prime minister in 2001 and Sharon needed to provide a list. Sasson was formerly a top government lawyer. Sharon presumably expected her to provide a fig leaf rather than an indictment. Sharon also sought to negotiate an understanding with Washington that Israel could keep building homes within the built-up areas of existing settlements. To create a data base of those areas, the government commissioned retired general Baruch Spiegel. Spiegel, too, was more conscientious than expected. His report details which parts of outposts and older settlements were built on stolen land. Nothing can be more of a nuisance to a rogue op than public officials who believe in upholding the law.
Meanwhile, Israeli activists and Palestinian landowners began filing suits against illegal building in settlements, a strategy pioneered by land-use expert Dror Etkes. Attorneys representing the government have repeatedly admitted that construction was illegal while trying to delay demolishing anything.
Netanyahu finally faced a choice: He could keep his foreign-policy commitments and uphold the law, or accede to pressure from settlers and their backers in his party to protect and expand settlement. With early elections expected this year in Israel, he has decided to play to the base. Rehelim, Brukhin, and Sansanah are three of the 17 outposts now tied up in court cases. It's not clear yet whether the government will legalize them by approving them as new settlements or by claiming that they are neighborhoods of existing ones. That, after all, is a "technical matter." The reality is that the government has admitted that the three settlements exist with government support and approval, and it will now build more houses in each.
Asked about the Israeli move, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, "We don’t think this is helpful … and we don’t accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity." That's not exactly an announcement of a crisis in Israel-U.S. relations, but then it's also an election year in America. "Why does the dog wag its tail? Because the dog is smarter than the tail. If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog." So begins the movie Wag the Dog. Right now Netanyahu seems confident he can wag Washington as he pleases.