Late last week, the Israeli government announced that tenders had been issued for over 300 new apartments in two settlments in the occupied West Bank. Coming in the midst of several particularly violent weeks in the region, the decision suggests that Ariel Sharon’s administration believes the U.S.-backed ‘road map’ to peace really is dead.
Planned construction in the two settlements — one deep in the West Bank near the Palestinian city or Nablus, the other near Jerusalem — is a clear breach of the peace plan championed by President Bush. But not in the eyes of the Sharon government. A spokesperson for the Israeli government explained: “All legal tenders within existing communities are not included in the road map according to our interpretation and our understanding.” Interesting, but somehow the Sharon government’s understanding of the roadmap has been lost in translation. The U.S. State Department was quick to clarify the American position. “We have made our policy clear, which is that, under the road map, Israel has made a commitment to stop settlement activity. Sticking to that commitment is important,” said spokesman Adam Ereli.
The settlement decision was alarming to many observers, but surprising to few. A quick review of the past months of Israeli policy reveal a string of such decisions. Thursday’s announcement came only a few weeks after the Sharon administration slated 600 additional settlement apartments for construction. The Israeli group Peace Now reports that 1,627 tenders for new settlement homes have already been published this year. Another 300, while perhaps disconcerting to the international community, is nothing new to Israelis and Palestinians. As Gershom Gorenberg reported in Mother Jones, the last ten years have shown enormous settlement growth in the Palestinian territories. Gorenberg writes:
“[G]overnment support for settlements is a more pressing political issue than ever. Israel’s economy is imploding — largely as a result of the Palestinian uprising — and the government is slashing social programs and schools. Notwithstanding $10 billion in new aid from the United States, this spring the Israeli government said it was laying off 7 percent of its civil servants — including teachers — as part of an austerity plan, which set off national strikes. Furthermore, the new U.S.-backed “road map” for peace requires that Israel ‘immediately dismantle settlement outposts established since March 2001 … and freeze all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)’ as a first step toward an agreement with the Palestinians.”
And despite the violence and the guidelines of the roadmap, Sharon still seems to be steering Israeli settlers — and the soldiers that protect them — past the green line and deeper into the West Bank. While regional analysts have long noted this trend, Thursday’s tenders received little comment in the international and Israeli press. Instead of debating the latest development in the settlement saga — a crisis where the options are well understood: ongoing Israeli occupation or removing the settlements — Israeli commentators pondered the future of their prime minister.
David Horovitz, the editor of the Jerusalem Report argues in a recent column that Sharon is losing Israel’s confidence. Withstanding his hardline tactics, many Israelis still decry him from the right, pushing for stronger attacks on potential Palestinian suicide bombers. And with the recent deadly blast in Haifa and the following seige by the Israeli Defense Forces, many Israelis are wondering if Sharon will ever be able to uproot the plentitude of Palestinians willing to blow up themselves in Israel. Horowitz argues that Israelis have lost faith that Sharon can deliver them from the current violence. While the first two years of Sharon’s leadership landed him high approval ratings, the hawkish prime minister has recently been losing ground.
“[I]n the last few weeks, especially since the bombings at Tsrifin army base and Jerusalem’s Cafe Hillel that brought him rushing home from his India visit, Sharon has lost Israel. His insistence that he knows what he is doing, and that what he is doing will ensure the minimal loss of Israeli life and the maximal advancement of Israeli interests, is no longer credible. He never said he had a vision, but he said he had a plan. Few still believe him. His policies are simply too inconsistent.”
Horovitz cites Sharon’s recent flip-flop over the ailing Yasser Arafat. He has threatened to expel or assassinate the increasingly irrelevant Palestinian leader, but he’s apparently been shushed into inaction by an outraged international community. Sharon’s inability to secure a prisoner release with Abu Mazen, and the Israeli raid on an abadoned camp in Syria, Horovitz argues, have all left many Israelis wondering if they had placed the best man behind the wheel.
But while Horovitz muses on the mood of the Israeli public, others seem to be pre-occupied with bigger questions. With the total demise of the roadmap, a number of commentators are questioning the very precepts of the Oslo process: the two-state solution.
In his recent marathon book review of many of the latest publications by prominent Jewish scholars, Daniel Lazare writes in the Nation that like never before intellectuals are deconstructing the essential assumptions of Zionism. Lazare explains:
“There is no doubt that the approach to such questions, especially in the United States, has reached a turning point. The collapse of Bush’s farcical “road map,” the Berlin wall that Israel is building deep inside Palestinian territory, the threats to exile or even assassinate Yasir Arafat and now the extension of hostilities to Syria–the old consensus is crumbling under the impact of such developments, and it is now possible to say things that would have been verboten only a few months ago. In Israel, Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset, recently warned that if Israel wishes to preserve what little democracy it still has, it must either withdraw to its pre-1967 boundaries or grant full citizenship to the approximately 3.5 million Palestinians in the occupied territories, a step that would spell the virtual end of the Jewish state. Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, has pronounced the two-state approach “inapplicable” to the problem of Israel and Palestine and is calling for a single binational state based on Arab-Jewish equality. In the United States the historian Tony Judt, declaring the Middle East peace process a dead letter in The New York Review of Books, says that the very idea of a Jewish state has become an “anachronism” in a multicultural world in which citizenship is increasingly separated from race, religion and ethnicity. ‘In today’s ‘clash of cultures’ between open, pluralist democracies and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states,’ he adds, ‘Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp.'”
While the decision this week to further settlement construction shows no change on the ground, Lazare is illustrating an emerging theme within the Israeli political spectrum. With the political debate widening, albeit however small, the electoral composition is liable to shift. With Israeli municipal elections being held on Tuesday, many are expecting the public’s frustration with the Likhud party to come into play. While settlement growth is still a key issue, it clearly isn’t a new development. If any significant political change can be expected in the coming months Horovitz and Lazare are observing the trends of substance.