Last week, Israel’s security cabinet approved a new round of construction in the West Bank. Along with 6,000 new settlement permits, the ministers approved 700 new Palestinian building permits in Area C. This was unusual for a number of reasons. First, the security cabinet does not need to approve permits for Palestinian building in Area C; the permits only require the approval of the prime minister and the IDF Civil Administration. Second, permits for Palestinians in Area C are almost never granted, to the tune of a high of fourteen annually in the past decade and in some years none. Third, despite the presence of some new security cabinet members – such as newly minted Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich – who are among Israel’s most hardline politicians on the issue of Palestinan construction in Area C, the permits were approved unanimously, and in the middle of an election campaign to boot. The entire episode is puzzling in a number of ways, and yields some clues as to what may be going on behind the scenes.
The approved permits immediately caused a ruckus on the Israeli right. There is a persistent complaint among settlers that illegal Palestinian construction in Area C is being pushed by the Palestinian Authority as a way of creating a de facto Palestinian state, and that Palestinians are taking over Area C under Israel’s nose. Granting 700 Palestinian building permits was criticized as giving into Palestinian lawlessness and rewarding illegal behavior, rather than cracking down on it. The heads of the two largest West Bank regional councils issued a joint statement condemning the move, while the head of the Gush Etzion council lamented that Palestinians stealing land was now paying off for them.
There are a few possibilities as to what is going on. It is obvious that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s insistence that the security cabinet approve these permits, which is unusual to say the least, is in order to deflect criticism for the move falling on him personally. It is smart politically to make everyone in his immediate political orbit own this move so that none of them can take him to task for it later. Indeed, Smotrich – the person whom anyone would have anticipated to be the most antagonistic – took to Facebook not only to defend his vote, but to explain it as part of a plan to limit Palestinian construction in Area C to those who were there before Oslo and to prevent Palestinian construction from taking place in areas that would threaten Israeli sovereignty over the entirety of Area C. While the logic of this is somewhat head-scratching, the fact that there is no indication of where these permits will be granted, or whether they are permits for new construction versus permits legalizing existing homes that were constructed illegally, at least provides Smotrich’s explanation with the veneer of plausibility.
More likely is that the 700 Palestinian permits were meant to be a stalking horse enabling Israel to approve yet another round of building permits in settlements at nearly nine orders of magnitude, and deflect some of the criticism that resulted from Israel’s Wadi al-Hummus demolitions late last month. It is also not coincidental that Israel approved Palestinian construction – and without a peep from the security cabinet’s annexation proponents – only a couple of weeks before the Civil Administration’s announcement of planning and construction approval for over 1,700 Israeli homes beyond the security barrier and outside the settlement blocs, including retroactive legalization of three illegal outposts. In light of what has taken place on the Israeli side of the ledger, it is easy to see why Netanyahu insisted on granting Palestinian permits as well.
But even more likely is that this has nothing to do with settlements or Palestinian construction per se, and everything to do with the Trump peace initiative. Not only did the unanimous security cabinet approvals come amidst a public relations blitz from Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman that appeared to telegraph what the political component of the Trump plan will look like, it came right before Jared Kushner and Greenblatt were due to land in Israel and then continue on to other countries in the region to discuss their next steps. The optics of Israel greenlighting more Palestinian construction in Area C than it has over the entire course of Netanyahu’s premiership to date are designed to smooth the way forward for Kushner and Greenblatt as they try to convince reluctant Arab governments that they have a viable plan that involves more than just acceding to most Israeli wishes while rejecting nearly every Palestinian position.
As the Trump team has hinted in not so subtle a fashion that it does not view uprooting settlements as necessary or desirable, pointing to new Palestinian building in Area C theoretically allows them to make the case that they are being even-handed, envisioning a scenario in which everyone stays put, whether Israeli or Palestinian. Kushner can now point to a major concession from Netanyahu and make the case that no other president would have been able to wring so many Palestinian building permits out of the Israeli government. Whether a few hundred permits juxtaposed against thousands of demolitions and over ten thousand standing demolition orders over the past decade presents a terribly strong case is another debate altogether, but it is hard not to conclude that the Trump team wanted something that they could pull from their pockets during their regional tour.
There is a political dimension to this as well, as rumors swirl that the White House is planning to unveil its peace plan and possibly even convene a Camp David summit to discuss it this fall. The likelihood is that Israel’s September 17do-over election is going to result again in a deadlock, with both Netanyahu and his Kachol Lavan challengers unable to form a government without the other. There is no appetite in Israel to go to the polls a third time, and if Netanyahu is the only barrier to a unity government, along with the fact that he may be indicted in the midst of coalition negotiations, the temptation for his Likud compatriots to give him an ignominious send-off will be high. The only way for him to force Kachol Lavan into a coalition that he leads will be to point to a Trump peace plan that is so favorable to Israel and that he argues he has brought about, that Benny Gantz and company will have little choice but to back him up so that he can engage with it. If a Trump plan is unveiled during coalition negotiations that envisions Israel retaining all settlements while Arab states reluctantly engage – a long shot at best, but the Trump team’s apparent goal – the 700 Palestinian building permits will have paved the way.