Things on the political scene have been – if not quite grim – unsettling and worrisome at best.
But I want to kick off here with very recent news about a transition in government policy that addresses Israel’s rights rather than simply bending to what is politically correct. It offers the promise that finally we can do it right. I am not holding my breath yet.
Last month, the Israeli NGO Regavim, which fights for Israel’s rights to the Land and monitors illegal Arab encroachment, released a hair-raising report. The facts it presented are hardly new, but the situation has been ignored by the government for years:
The Palestinian Authority, with EU support, is doing illegal construction in Area C, which, according to Oslo, is under the full civil and military control of Israel. Essentially the PA is following the plans of former PA prime minister Salem Fayyad, who called for establishing facts on the ground with territorial contiguity in order to make a Palestinian state a reality.
Look closely at this picture of illegal structures in Area C and you can see blue and white stickers on every building; they bear the EU logo.
In the last ten years, all years during which Binyamin Netanyahu has been prime minister, 28,000 structures have been erected illegally by the PA in Area C. That is not a typo: 28,000. The government has not acted either to block this construction, or to demolish these illegal structures that are already standing, even when ordered by the court to do so. The same reluctance has not been demonstrated with regard to demolishing illegal Jewish housing.
In addition to the construction of illegal structures, the PA is involved in a land grab – utilizing many dunam for agriculture and grazing.
Said Regavim Director Meir Deutsch, “…the figures speak for themselves and they’re not subject to debate…The Palestinian Authority is constantly working to create irreversible facts on the ground, while the State of Israel and its leaders are simply asleep at the wheel.
“If the Israeli government does not wake up now, the citizens of Israel will wake up one day to the reality of a terrorist state across the border. These figures are a wake-up call.” (Emphasis added)
Earlier this week, Netanyahu brought to the Security Cabinet a proposal for providing permits to Arabs for construction of 700 housing units in Area C.
Especially in light of the alarming situation of ongoing illegal Arab building in Area C that already exists, this proposal promoted a good deal of outrage on the right. Community leaders such as Gush Etzion Regional Council head Shlomo Ne’eman were quick to speak out against it. Yisrael Gantz and Yossi Dagan, heads of the Binyamin Council and Shomron the Council respectively, issued a joint statement. My own, first, visceral reaction was quite negative.
An assumption was made by many that Prime Minister/Defense Minister Netanyahu was promoting this at the behest of the Trump administration as a precursor to the “peace plan.” This exacerbated objections to it: it seemed that we were being asked to start giving up part of Area C now.
US Ambassador to Israel has since said that the plan for the construction of 700 housing units was purely an Israeli decision and the US was not involved.
After the proposal was brought to the Security Cabinet, It was encouraging to learn that it was not rubber-stamped – reports surfaced regarding heated discussions that ensued for a couple of days.
But then the Cabinet voted unanimously to approve a proposal regarding the 700 units for Arabs. And two right wing individuals came out in favor of it: MK Bezalel Smotrich and Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi (pictured). Revivi’s positions are a bit more centrist, but the endorsement of Smotrich, who is straight and tough and very nationalist right wing, was startling.
As I considered what Smotrich and Revivi were saying, I began to get it. Then I reviewed the Cabinet decision in its entirety and I reversed my opinion on the matter, seeing this recommendation as positive.
What was recommended was a package, not just approval for some Arab housing in Area C. And this will turn out to be positive ONLY if all aspects of that package are enacted with seriousness.
In its conceptualization it indicates that Israel is prepared to take control of Area C at long last. In making Israel the active party of responsibility, rather than a passive party upon which the PA imposes its will, it is a precursor to Israeli sovereignty in Area C.
Smotrich, who sits on the Security Cabinet, said this on Tuesday (emphasis added):
“For the first time, we are taking responsibility and formulating strategic government policy regarding Area C after 10 years of only Arab strategy.
“I am delighted to share the credit with other ministers for turning the table and turning the ship’s wheel in this regard.”
Declared Revivi, who is concerned with strengthening Jewish settlement (emphasis added):
“Some people react instinctively. There are those who don’t think about how to move forward. We need to examine things in-depth and not respond with “no” to everything….
“Sovereignty becomes an inheritance that everyone understands and governance is a part of sovereignty.”
What Revivi was saying is that to apply sovereignty to Area C – which is how we move forward – we must become responsible for the governance of all the people who live in that area; that would include the Arabs who are resident there. If we don’t apply ourselves to responsible governance for the Arabs (if we let the PA run the show in this regard), we are not advancing the possibility of sovereignty.
This is not a discussion about the PA Areas A and B, where the great majority of the Arabs live – what will need to be done there may well be quite different. We are speaking of Area C, which is where all of the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria are located and there is a smaller Arab population.
Let us look then at the guidelines the Security Cabinet established unanimously on Wednesday for construction of the Arab housing. Each separate item is an essential part of the whole:
 First, there must be a strategic plan for Area C established by the government to counter the PA plans. This is enormously important. The passivity must end.
 Then the housing would be only for Arabs who are “native residents” of Area C, not Arabs who move in from Areas A and B. Moving in those Arabs is what the PA has been doing.
 Permission for construction would be granted only according to the security and strategic interests of Israel. The housing would not create contiguity with PA areas and would not be in critical areas of security. This, again, is the opposite of what the PA has been advancing: now we would be in charge.
 Along with the approval of 700 housing units for Arabs there would have to be plans for the construction of 6,000 housing units for Jews in Area C. This is the enhancement of settlement.
 It was further stipulated that a policy should immediately be formulated to curb the activities of the Palestinian Authority in Area C, intensifying law enforcement activities and demolishing illegal buildings. What a difference it would make if we did this!
How much of this actually materializes remains to be seen. I am not naïve and I do not imagine that “poof!” we will suddenly act decisively in all regards. But I do think this is a very important step in the right direction; it points a finger at the problems and what needs to be done. Without this, indeed, we will not progress to sovereignty in Area C.
Do I trust Binyamin Netanyahu to be stringent in following through here, and, especially, in ordering the dismantling of illegal Arab housing? No, sadly, I do not. Given the evidence of those 28,000 illegal structures during his tenure, how could I?
Our only hope in this regard is a strong right wing coalition governing, and right now that is not a sure thing. As I write, the deadline for submitting party lists for the election is upon us.
There is one major right wing merged faction – merged technically for the election – called the United Right, which consists of Habayit Hayehudi and National Union (jointly called the Union of the Right and truly merged), and the New Right. It is headed by Ayelet Shaked.
Moshe Feiglin has declared that he will run his Zehut party alone. Polls indicate that he will not make the threshold, which means votes may very well be lost that could have gone to bolster the United Right or Likud, enhancing the possibilities of achieving a governing coalition.
And sadly, apparently in the end Otzma is going it alone as well. I will not belabor the ins and outs of this: who said what, who wanted merger and who didn’t. It becomes wearisome and pointless. I had hoped this outcome would be different; Otzma’s chances for passing the threshold are not good.
The big worry is a situation, post-election, in which neither Likud nor Blue and White is in a position to form a coalition of at least 61 mandates, because of the spoiler, Lieberman. We have some six weeks before the September 17th election and must watch the campaign closely.
Jared Kushner, head of the “peace team,” is in the area. Accompanied by Envoy Jason Greenblatt, he met with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Wednesday; predictably, the king called for a “two-state solution” based on the ’48 armistice lines.
Kushner and Greenblatt – accompanied by Special envoy for Iran Brian Hawk, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer – then met here in Jerusalem with Netanyahu.
Kushner and team subsequently made stops in Cairo and Riyadh.
What the team is promoting now is the political agenda of the plan, as a follow-up to the Bahrain conference. Reports surfaced here in Israel indicating that Kushner would be extending invitations to various Arab countries to attend a peace conference at Camp David before the Israeli elections; it was said that Netanyahu helped plan it but would not be attending (so as to not discourage Arab attendance).
A White House official subsequently denied this report: “No summit has currently been planned. The Middle East team will report back to the president, the vice president, the secretary of state and the National Security Council upon returning to discuss the many potential next steps…”
As we look for clues as to what will be revealed in that plan, one statement emerged that is more positive than anything we might have imagined. In an interview on CNN on Tuesday, Ambassador Friedman said (emphasis added):
“We believe in Palestinian autonomy. We believe in Palestinian self-governance. We believe that the autonomy should be extended up until the point where it interferes with Israeli security…
“The last thing the world needs is a failed Palestinian state. Right now the Palestinian government is so weak.”
A whole lot of people, including some right wing lawmakers, think much the same. The big question is what the parameters of that autonomy would be.
I have one last thought, however, to temper enthusiasm for Friedman’s excellent position. What I am concerned about – have seen hints of – is an inclination in Israel to agree to whatever the plan demands of us, because, after all, how can we say no when they’ve been so absolutely terrific.
We must never, ever allow ourselves to fall into this thinking. Our decisions must be based on what is best for Israel.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.