Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet voted unanimously Friday to ease a four-year freeze on settlements in the West Bank and Gaza - a move almost certain to increase the Jewish population in the occupied territories while complicating Israel’s peace talks with the Palestinians.
Although the Cabinet gave a go-ahead for gradual growth in the 144 Jewish settlements built among an overwhelmingly Arab population, a government spokesman said there was no green light for a binge of new settlements or unchecked expansion by existing ones.
“The previous government imposed chains and handcuffs over the natural development of the Jewish settlements,” said a statement from Netanyahu, read by his Cabinet secretary. “It is obvious that such a situation is not acceptable to us.”
Friday’s change in policy got diverse responses across the Mideast spectrum: outrage among Palestinians who accused Israel of breaking past agreements; fears among liberal Israelis that construction will cause a terrorist backlash and delay a final peace; and disappointment among some settlers who want building to resume full speed ahead in the Biblical lands of Israel.
“This is a dangerous decision for the basic interests of Israel, and might bring about an outburst of violence and terrorism,” said Labor Party executive Nisim Zvili.
Palestinian politicians accused Israel’s new leadership of going back on the spirit of the Oslo peace agreement. “This issue raises deep concern, real danger and threats to the peace process and to the possibility of compromise between Israel and the Palestine,” said Palestinian legislator Ziad Abu Zayyad.
To open the door to a negotiated peace, the government of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin froze most settlement construction when it took power in 1992, agreeing only to complete 10,000 housing units left by its predecessors in Likud.
During the Labor freeze, every new structure or household was illegal unless specifically approved as an exception by a government committee. Even so, the settler population mushroomed by 40 percent, going from about 100,000 people to 140,000; a third of the increase came from natural population growth and two-thirds from occupation of housing initiated by Likud.
Settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein said Friday he was happy the “discrimination” against settlers has been lifted. But he said he is still waiting for the day when Netanyahu will give an unequivocal push to new Jewish communities. “Morally, I do not feel that this government will be able to agree to a situation where no Jewish settlements are established,” he said.
One immediate result of Friday’s decision is that an estimated 2,600 apartments kept vacant under Labor may now be occupied.
That alone should increase the population of Jews among the 2.1 million Arabs in the occupied territories to more than 150,000. The settlements are on land conquered by Israel from the Arabs in the 1967 Middle East War, most of which Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority had hoped to get back in a peace settlement leading to an independent Palestinian state.
Both sides acknowledge that the more Jewish settlement there is in these areas, the less likely a sovereign Palestinian state becomes.
Netanyahu won election in May opposing a Palestinian state and instead speaks of granting local autonomy to Palestinians.
The Cabinet decision Friday capped a week of disappointing news for the Palestinians. Earlier, Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon announced a plan for major new highways in the West Bank.
Israel also ordered Palestinian officials to vacate some offices in East Jerusalem, saying government functions were being conducted there.