Netanyahu accused of trying to woo far-right voters with settlement plans


Israel this week announced tenders for another 198 homes in settlements despite reports that US president Barack Obama had lost patience with prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu over his push to expand the Jewish presence in the West Bank.

The statement from the housing ministry, six days before Israel’s general election on Tuesday, authorised 84 homes to be built in Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, and 114 in Efrat, south of Jerusalem.

The leader of the centrist Hatnua party, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, accused Mr Netanyahu of destroying “Israel’s international relations and sacrificing national interests because of politics on the eve of elections”.

‘International isolation’

Yair Lapid, the head of the centrist There is a Future, accused Mr Netanyahu of trying to woo far-right voters. “Netanyahu once again proves that he favours the settlers over the debilitated middle class. Instead of investing in housing, education and the battle against the high cost of living, the prime minister chose, just before the elections, to invest in the settlements, thus deepening Israel’s international isolation.”

The latest approval for settlement expansion came after American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for Bloomberg, quoted Mr Obama as having said in closed conversations that Mr Netanyahu was conducting a cowardly policy that was detrimental to Israel’s interests, and that he was a hostage to the settler lobby.

Those statements were not denied by the White House. Israeli officials accused the president of interfering.

“Everyone understands that Israel’s citizens are the only ones who will determine who represents faithfully the state of Israel’s vital interests,” Mr Netanyahu responded.

The election campaign over the last few weeks has been dominated by the rise of the far-right Jewish Home party led by the young and charismatic Naftali Bennet, a high-tech billionaire who previously served as head of the West Bank settlers’ council.

Jewish Home is predicted to win up to 16 seats in the 120-seat Knesset parliament, and most votes appear to be coming at the expense of the joint Likud-Beiteinu list, made up of Mr Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party and the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, led by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. Polls show Likud-Beiteinu could fall to only 32 seats in the next Knesset, 10 less than the current combined Knesset seats for the two parties.

Mr Netanyahu’s response has been to not only talk tough on settlements, but to authorise a wave of new construction, in the hope of winning over wavering right-wing voters.

He denied claims from left and centre parties that his policy on settlements would trigger a crisis in relations with Washington. “The relationship between Israel and the US is rock solid. There is tight security and intelligence co-operation. There are also differences of opinion regarding the best way to achieve peace. This is not new.”

This week’s announcement of new tenders for settler homes coincided with a report from left-wing NGO Peace Now which pointed to a significant increase in settlement building last year, including in isolated communities outside the main settlement blocs.

Peace Now concluded that, since taking office on March 31st, 2009, the Netanyahu government’s “policies and actions in the West Bank and east Jerusalem disclose a clear intention to use settlements to systematically undermine and render impossible a realistic, viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.

Almost 7,000 housing units

The report found that during the term of the outgoing government, construction began on 6,867 new housing units in settlements. Of these, 2,622 (38.2 per cent) are in isolated settlements located east of the route of Israel’s separation barrier; 2,217 (32.3 per cent) are in settlements west of the constructed route of the fence; and 2,028 (29.5 per cent) are between sections of the fence that are already built and the planned route for the rest of the barrier.

Over the past two years alone, the Netanyahu government has issued tenders for 4,469 housing units in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the report stated. “These approvals pave the way for a huge increase in settlement construction in the coming years,” the report stated.