Dan Meridor, member of the Octet and the security cabinet, deputy prime minister, and one of the Likud princes, has given an interview in which he says that Israel should freeze all settlement construction beyond the large blocs like Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim. Meridor stresses that he believes that the entire land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is historically Jewish but that it is foolish to think that Israel can hang on to all of it while remaining both Jewish and democratic. He says that building all over the place is the single most damaging thing that Israel is doing to itself, and that the policy should be to build up international support for a land swap that would let Israel keep the major settlement blocs. Meridor adds that the whole world is after Israel because of its settlement policy, and that while he would keep Israelis in the settlements until there is a negotiated deal, there is no sense in allowing the settlements to continue growing.

Make no mistake, this development is just as important as the Likud-Kadima unity agreement. Meridor is not a fringe figure and also not someone who is free to say anything he likes by virtue of no longer being in government (see: Ehud Olmert). This is a break with current government policy by a senior minister, and one who is a member of Likud no less. Plenty of people will downplay this, but it really shouldn’t be downplayed. What this is going to do is crystallize the rift in Likud even further and bring things to a head. Meridor and those who agree with him can no longer coexist in the same party with MKs like Danny Danon, Yariv Levin, and Likud’s other Young Guns who take a hardline maximalist position when it comes to settlements. It is not a side issue within the party, but the main issue within the party. As it is, the younger hardliners do not trust the older Likud generation – and this includes Netanyahu – when it comes to settlements, and Meridor’s very public statement that settlement growth needs to completely cease outside the areas that Israel is expected to keep in a deal is the kind of thing that can spark an intra-party civil war.

The pressing question here is whether Meridor is acting alone. On the one hand, Meridor is in some ways a Likud apostate, having left the party to form the Merkaz (Center) Party a little over a decade ago, and then taking his time to rejoin Likud once Merkaz folded. One of the reasons he left Likud originally was because he and Netanyahu did not get along, and he now may very well be providing the rope for Netanyahu to finally hang him with. On the other hand, Meridor is also the perfect person for Netanyahu to use in floating a trial balloon because he is an old-guard Likud member without any higher political ambitions at this point and because he still commands respect both at home and abroad. There’s no way to know what is actually going on, but the timing of this coming right after Netanyahu has built a coalition that can withstand Likud defections is suspicious to me. If it comes to a point where the party splits into factions and Netanyahu has to choose to go with the Meridor wing or the Danon wing, I find it difficult to see him choosing the latter. I wrote yesterday that I think a split within Likud is possibly imminent, and Meridor’s interview will only hasten that along.