Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the Kohelet Policy Forum conference in Jerusalem, on January 8, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

Settlements: The Winning Card in Israeli Elections

Palestinians accuse Israeli leaders of using the settlement card to attract more right-wing votes

The Palestinian leadership condemned the announcement by Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the New Right party, on January 8 of the establishment of a task force to develop and legalize settlements in the West Bank, aimed at promoting Israeli presence in the territory classified as Area C, which is under full Israeli administrative and security control according to the 1995 Oslo II Accord.

Speaking at the Kohelet Policy Forum Conference in Jerusalem, Bennett said, “Our objective is that within a short amount of time – and we will work for it – we will apply [Israeli] sovereignty to all of Area C, not just the settlements, not just this or that bloc.”

Minister Walid Assaf, head of the Palestinian Authority’s Colonization and Wall Resistance Commission, told The Media Line that Bennett’s idea came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement that Israeli settlements on Palestinian land are not necessarily illegal. “Bennett is taking advantage of the American protection to achieve more settlement expansion and attain further Israeli strategic goals while destroying the two-state solution,” the minister said.

Assaf indicated that Bennett is using the settlement card to garner more votes from right-wing voters and settlers, as it affects their decision in the coming elections, “which proves that until today there is no real Israeli partner for peace. The Israeli right wing didn’t just reject the two-state solution but completely destroyed it in favor of the settlements.”

Nevertheless, he said that the issue of settlements represents an internal struggle within the Israeli Right itself. “Therefore, Israeli leaders compete over who is more extremist in protecting settlers.”

Lior Akerman, an Israeli political analyst and retired brigadier general, told The Media Line that the statements made by the defense minister stem from his political outlook and his need to drum up support in the upcoming elections from among right-wing voters.

“However, it is important to make the distinction between the operational need and the political position. In fact, the army currently controls all parts of Area C regardless of the number of settlements in the area,” Akerman said. “Undoubtedly, the establishment of additional settlements will make it difficult to resume negotiations with the Palestinians but it is important to understand that there have not been any negotiations with the Palestinians for many years, especially since there is no partner on the Palestinian side and no will on the Israeli side.”

Regarding the annexation issue, he said that clearly the Israeli Right would like to annex a significant portion of Area C to Israel, but “in practice, it is difficult to assume that Israel will want or succeed in annexing all of Area C, and the assumption is that these are mainly political statements and slogans designed to recruit supporters.”

Elad Metsuyanim, the executive director of the Ariel Development Fund, told The Media Line that the topic of settlements is constantly being discussed, before, during, and after elections. “But it is crucial to shift the mindset that Israeli cities and communities in Judea and Samara are an obstacle to peace and realize that Ariel and the surrounding areas offer opportunities for coexistence,” Metsuyanim said, using Israel’s term for the West Bank.

He added, “Only then will we be able to attain sustainable peace.”

Moshe Marzuk, a researcher fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, told The Media Line that determining the future of the settlements is not currently on the public agenda in Israel. Nevertheless, Israeli leaders speak about it to win votes in the upcoming election.

Well-informed Israeli legal sources say that the task force aims to address the granting of permits for settlers to purchase land in the West Bank and link settlement outposts to the water and electricity networks, in addition to preventing the eviction of settlers who have seized private Palestinian land. And this, in practice, means the annexation of these areas to Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asserted during the January 10 meeting of the Palestinian Liberation Organization Executive Committee that the continuation of Israeli “attacks” on the Palestinian people, especially in terms of settlement expansion, is a matter that cannot be tolerated, and said that if there is no change, written agreements with Israel and the US will be null and void.

“We will work and prepare ourselves for this moment because we cannot bear to see the land annexed piece by piece as we watch,” Abbas said in a statement that was published following the meeting, which took place in Ramallah.

Suhail Khalayle, the head of the Settlement Control Unit at the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem, told The Media Line that most of the Israeli political parties are compatible on the issue of annexing the West Bank, and the settlement expansion policy, where the discussion currently is about who gives more concessions to settlements and who’s actually going to annex them.

“The new American administration abolished the old position of the previous administration that was somewhat moderate, and gave possibilities and space for more settlement expansion in the West Bank. The matter is very dangerous as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo basically legalized Israeli settlement,” Khalayle continued. “This is even more dangerous than the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.”

He said that the battle against the settlements needs a unified Palestinian position, especially because there will be a need to approach international parties, but that Palestinian division affects this position and weakens the Palestinian side.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman commented on the issue at a press conference in Jerusalem on the same day as Bennett’s announcement. Friedman said there are three issues of great importance: the status of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). Friedman noted that the former two issues were addressed by recent changes in US policy “but Judea and Samaria are the most difficult and the most complex of issues due to the large Palestinian population in them.”

The American administration, he said, will present its vision to solve this issue, referring to the plan known as the “deal of the century.”

A recent study published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development on December 2 said that Israeli military control of the West Bank between 2000 and 2017 cost the Palestinian people approximately $47.7 billion, or more than $2.5 billion annually. If this had been available for development spending, the Palestinian government could have increased its development budget, pegged at $4.5 billion during the 18 years under review, more than tenfold.

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