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Unnatural Growth

"Israel will not freeze settlement construction for natural growth, despite intense pressure from the Obama administration to do so," The Jerusalem Post, June 1, 2009. The argument that “natural growth” is crucial to Israel’s well-being is utter nonsense.  

Here are a few facts. 

First of all, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the population growth in the settlements is 5.6% annually. That is three-and-a-half times the rate of Jewish population growth in Israel. Forty percent of settler population growth is directly attributable to immigration, with a significant part of the rest due to the increased childbirths as a result of that immigration.

Second, there is no housing crisis in the settlements. There remain many vacant units. The idea that "natural growth" forces families to separate is simply counter-factual. Creating more opportunities and incentives for settlers to move back to Israel proper would be a welcome development, but barring “natural growth” contributes little, if anything, in this regard. It simply stops the settlements from expanding.

Third, the idea that a young couple or an expanding family should somehow have the right, guaranteed by the government, to live in the place of their choosing, irrespective of the housing market, is absurd. No one in New York, London, Paris, or anywhere else has such a guarantee, nor do people in Tel Aviv, Haifa or Beersheva. Young settler couples, like any others, must hunt for housing in the existing housing market, and sometimes that means they have to move to a nearby town.

Fourth, the implication that families will be “separated” if some members need to move back to Israel is ridiculous, as anyone who has ever travelled in Israel knows. Israel is a small country. If someone needs to move and finds a nice, affordable place in Israel, they are a short drive or bus ride away from their former community.

Fifth, the municipal boundaries of the established settlements are three times the size of the built-up areas. Therefore, allowing ‘natural growth” exceptions has enormous potential for major settlement expansion.

Sixth, the argument that Israel cannot legally halt construction once tenders have been issued, apartments sold, and work begun, is absolutely false. In 1992, when settlers sued the Rabin government over their decision to freeze work already begun, the High Court of Justice ruled that even after work has begun, the government can stop work due to its policy decisions. If losses are thereby incurred, they would be settled in civil court. Two different decisions agreed on this point, and there is no contradictory precedent in Israeli jurisprudence.

That adds up to the seventh and overriding fact: there is no reason or rationale for making any exception, including “natural growth,” to a settlement freeze. It certainly doesn’t serve Israel’s interests; the settlements are a terrible strain on Israel’s budget, with housing subsidies, increased security, and the need for new infrastructure to supply electricity, roads, water and other services to comparatively remote locales. That is a cost the budget, with education, health and other social services being strangled, cannot withstand.

Under these circumstances, it is astounding that the Minister of Internal Affairs Eli Yishai (Shas) is threatening to grab every shekel he can and pour them into the settlements while Israel’s social services die a slow death. The only reason to oppose a settlement freeze is to oppose ending the occupation of the West Bank. It is to oppose any move toward peace. Sadly, for some like both Yishai and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that is apparently far more important than the well-being of Israelis behind the Green Line.

After the Freeze

Whether he ever admits it publicly or not, Netanyahu is overwhelmingly likely to implement the settlement freeze the US is demanding. The real question is: what then?

A settlement freeze accomplishes two things: one, it buys some time for the Palestinian Authority and for a real, tangible peace process to be revived. But only a few months. In those months, it will be crucial that genuine progress is made on the diplomatic front, on the ground in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, and in terms of Israeli security.

The second thing it does is to bring the confrontation with the hardcore minority of the settler movement closer to the surface. A frequent refrain of late has been that Israel is “a country of laws.” Unfortunately, this has generally not been the case when it comes to enforcing the law on the settlers. That will have to change, and the most radical settlers’ likely response to a full and genuine freeze on all construction in the West Bank will put law and order to its final test. Either Israel gets serious about applying Israeli law to the settlers or it will demonstrate that it is not a country of law.

But that’s the limit of a freeze’s effects. Some, including such notable figures in Washington as Daniel Levy and Amjad Atallah of the New America Foundation, have argued that a freeze is the wrong goal, and that the enormous political capital a freeze demands from the US would be better spent on pushing for dismantlement of settlements. They fear that once a freeze is obtained, that political capital will be depleted.

I see it differently. I believe that a freeze will be an investment of political capital, one which will generate great returns if successful and open up more opportunities, including opportunities to push for a rollback of the settlement project. It will give the Palestinian Authority the first evidence it has had that, in the age of Obama, their approach works and Hamas’ does not. The continuing ability of the Palestinian Authority’s forces to keep a lid on terrorist activity in the West Bank, coupled with a settlement freeze, will create hope and support for next steps.

But Levy and Atallah are certainly correct that a freeze does nothing in the long run by itself. It must be followed quickly by serious steps toward a final resolution of this conflict. It will open the opportunity for such an outcome.

Benefits of a Settlement Freeze

A freeze will restore some credibility to the PA. If it is successful and Israelis see no decline in security, it will legitimize Obama’s approach and further discredit Netanyahu’s intransigence, particularly in the eyes of the Israeli public.

The ball will then be in Obama’s court, and the next step will be even more difficult. In order to capitalize on the freeze, he will have to get concessions from both Israel and the Arab world. He will have to continue to press Netanyahu to continue with the removal of roadblocks in the West Bank, to dismantle the “illegal outposts,” keep a moratorium on house demolitions in East Jerusalem and to find some way to allow reconstruction materials into Gaza without strengthening Hamas.

The danger is that if Israel is seen to be making all the concessions and getting nothing immediate in return, Obama will start to lose the unprecedented support he has right now from Congress and the pro-Israel community. The Palestinians will need to maintain and even strengthen their security apparatus and prove that they can maintain control in the West Bank.

But much more will be needed. Obama will have to get the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, to begin to melt the ice between themselves and Israel. Nothing like full diplomatic relations, of course, which must wait until a Palestinian state emerges. But something is needed — some kind of trade relations or an easing of the boycott of Israeli products.

It can’t all wait until the occupation completely ends. Obama has already begun pushing for some steps from the Arab world, and it will be crucial that he convince the Arab states to take them. One of the main problems with bilateralism is that the Palestinians have nothing to offer Israel that is tangible. The Arab states do, and Obama must obtain something to show Israel that peace is paying off for them as well.

That’s really the dance the President has to do now. When he gets the freeze (and I have no doubt he will get it if he sticks to his guns), he then needs to make sure it means something in the long term for the Palestinians and that it pays off for Israel as well. Not easy, but certainly possible. Obama has acted forcefully and boldly on this issue much earlier than most thought he would. He has earned some faith that he can take the more complicated steps before him. He’d better; because time is running short for a two-state solution and the obstacles in the region are perhaps as big as they’ve ever been.

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