Record settlement building under Netanyahu

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THE government of Israel under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has advanced a ‘record’ number of settlements during its nearly four years in office, a report by the Peace Now watchdog said on Wednesday.

The government’s actions ‘disclose a clear intention to use settlements to systematically undermine and render impossible a realistic, viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,’ said the Israeli NGO’s report.

In 2012 alone, at least 1,747 new settlement homes were built in the West Bank, with the defence ministry approving discussion and promotion of another 6,676 units, which are at different stages in the approval process.

Last year also saw the housing ministry publish tenders for 762 settler homes in the West Bank, and a list of another 1,048 upcoming tenders.

In the same period, the government decided to ‘legalise’ 10 settlement outposts built without authorisation, while activists set up another four new outposts, it said.

Israel differentiates between ‘legal’ settlements and ‘illegal’ outposts set up without government permission, but the international community views all settlement activity on occupied territory as a violation of international law.

It does not view construction in east Jerusalem, which it captured in 1967 and later annexed, as illegal, although the Palestinians want it as the capital of Palestine.

The Palestinians have refused to hold peace talks while Israel continues to build on land they want for a future state.

Overall, the Netanyahu administration has been responsible for ‘a record number of tenders,’ Peace Now said, paving the way ‘for an explosion of construction in settlements in the coming years’.

Since Netanyahu took office in March 2009, construction started on 6,867 units in the West Bank, and tenders have been published for 5,302 units in both the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

The explosion of approvals has erased the effects of a 10-month moratorium on new West Bank construction in 2010.

‘Many of these tenders are focusing on settlements, whose expansion directly undermines the possibility of achieving a two-state solution,’ the report said.

In total, the Netanyahu government advanced and approved 8,730 units in West Bank settlements over the past four years, Peace Now said, noting that the figures could be higher because the defence ministry does not make public its approvals for planning.

In east Jerusalem, over 10,000 settlement units have been approved since 2009.

The government’s policy has been expensive, the group said.

Central Bureau of Statistics figures show that at least 3.4 billion shekels ($1 billion/753 million euros) has been spent in ‘surplus funding to settlements, funding that would not have been spent if the settlers were living inside Israel proper’.

The report comes as another Israeli NGO, Terrestrial Jerusalem, said on Tuesday the Israel Lands Administration had issued ‘new settlement tenders’ for 84 units in Hebron, 114 units in Efrata and a large settlement near Bethlehem.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu is accusing President Obama of interfering in the forthcoming Israeli elections.

Only the people of Israel can decide who will represent their best interests, Netanyahu said on Wednesday, responding to remarks made by Obama just a week before the general election.

He said: ‘I think everyone knows that the citizens of Israel are the only ones who can decide who will faithfully represent the vital interests of the state.’

His remarks came in response to an article by the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in which he quoted Obama as saying repeatedly: ‘Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.’

Obama, he wrote, appeared to see Netanyahu as a ‘political coward’ vis-a-vis the peace process with the Palestinians, who was completely ‘captive to the settler lobby’ and whose ongoing settlement activity was moving Israel ‘down a path toward near total isolation’.

Senior figures from Netanyahu’s ruling right-wing Likud party reacted furiously, accusing the US leader of ‘gross interference’ in the upcoming election.

‘Over the last four years, we have faced tremendous pressure and we will continue to stand up for the vital interests of Israel and its security,’ Netanyahu told reporters on a tour of an Isreali army base near Gaza.

Until now, there had been no official response to the article, which on Wednesday dominated the media headlines in Israel.

‘This is gross interference by the US president in the elections in Israel,’ senior Likud members said, while others stated that he was ‘taking revenge’ for the Israeli leader’s overt support for Obama’s rival during the presidential race in November.

But Danny Danon, number five on the Likud list, put a positive spin on Obama’s ‘intervention,’ saying it would chalk up more votes for the premier.

‘Any external intervention attempt only brings us more seats,’ he said.

Opposition figures leapt at the chance to attack Netanyahu.

‘Anyone who still thinks things will be okay woke up this morning to a very clear and sharp statement by the US president, who says that Israel’s prime minister is leading the state of Israel into severe isolation,’ said ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

In the article, Goldberg wrote that Obama was unsurprised when Israel announced plans to build in E1, a highly sensitive area of West Bank land near Jerusalem, suggesting it was ‘what he has come to expect’ from Netanyahu’s ‘self-defeating policies’.

Although the US would not cut off its aid to Israel, Obama was not likely to ‘waste his time on Mideast peace’ and Israel could soon notice a ‘significant shift’ on the diplomatic front, he wrote.

‘It is in terms of American diplomatic protection – among the Europeans and especially at the UN – that Israel may one day soon notice a significant shift,’ he said, suggesting the US may fail to whip up votes against perceived anti-Israel resolutions, and could even itself abstain.

In an editorial, the Haaretz newspaper said the piece provided serious food for thought for voters just six days before the election.

These statements ‘are food for thought, served up to Israeli citizens before they retreat into their shell of apathy and elect a right-wing government comprised of Likud, (the secular nationalist) Yisrael Beitenu, (the hardline religious) Jewish Home and the ultra-Orthodox parties, which will lead the country into a confrontation with Obama and the rest of the world’.