Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ten months suspension of residential house construction in the West Bank reached Israel’s High Court of Justice on 23 December - without any sign of the Palestinian Authority showing the slightest interest in resuming negotiations one month after the moratorium was announced on 25 November.
During the past month Jewish residents angered by the suspension have mounted large demonstrations and clashed with police and building inspectors seeking access to settlements. Tensions have been rising between Jewish and Arab neighbours.
The Yasuf mosque arson on 13 December and the murder yesterday of a 45 years old Jewish father of 7 in a terrorist ambush are grim portents of what may happen in future in the present state of indecisiveness caused by the moratorium.
Civil disobedience is set to continue which the Government has indicated will be met with firm resistance by the police and civil authorities - and if necessary by the Army - to ensure the moratorium is observed and no new residences are constructed.
Thousands of would be occupants of dwellings slated for building or halted by the moratorium in various stages of construction - not to mention builders and building suppliers - will suffer huge financial losses requiring compensation claims being made against Israel. It is impossible to quantify the damages that will be have to be paid at this time but they obviously will be substantial.
Add to this the public cost of providing additional police, building inspectors, possibly deploying large parts of the army to assist in enforcing the moratorium and the costs of prosecutions for, and demolition of, illegal building work - and you have a picture of chaos and confusion set to involve Israel’s courts and civil authorities for years to come.
That Israel is not prepared for the consequences of its moratorium was made clear by the High Court of Justice which on 23 December gave the State 30 days to let it know when a compensation claims court included in the military order freezing settlement construction would be established and begin work.
The panel of three justices, headed by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, demanded to know
1. when the compensation claims committee would be established,This decision is only going to cause greater distress and anxiety for those affected by the moratorium as a further 30 days is given to the State to provide these details whilst the moratorium continues to drift for another month with no assured response from the Palestinian Authority on the resumption of negotiations.
2. when it would start working,
3. what the grounds would be for applying to it,
4. how applications would be filed,
5. what the hearing procedures would be and
6. what body the settlers could turn to if they were dissatisfied with the committee’s decisions.
One must seriously question the continuation of the moratorium in the absence of any signal from the Palestinian Authority of its intention to resume negotiations.
The idea of a moratorium is not in issue. It has been done before. If it achieved its intended result of negotiations being resumed then it can be justified - even if those negotiations eventually lead to nowhere which is the most likely scenario that will occur.
Menachem Begin instituted a three months moratorium on settlement construction when he commenced negotiations with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. But the distinction then from the present moratorium is that it was given in consideration of the actual negotiations being undertaken.
This is not the case in the present moratorium where there are no such understandings or commitment.
Netanyahu’s failure to place a deadline on the continuation of the moratorium being dependent on the Palestinian Authority resuming negotiations - only encourages the Palestinan Authority to sit around and do nothing for 10 months ostensibly trying to extract a more comprehensive moratorium from Israel including a total freeze on any construction whatsoever in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Meanwhile the financial and social costs to Israel arising from the moratorium soar exponentially as the time frame of the moratorium increases and civil disobedience escalates.
Any expectation of lasting political gain being obtained by Israel by announcing the moratorium is minimal.
Although American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the moratorium as “unprecedented” nevertheless US Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell said on 27 November:
“The United States also disagrees with some Israeli actions in Jerusalem affecting Palestinians in areas such as housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes,”It is precisely these Israeli actions that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has given for refusing to accept the current limited moratorium and seeking its widening to cover such actions.
The Americans can therefore hardly blame Abbas if he sits on his heels for 10 months and does nothing whilst professing to express his earnest desire to resume negotiations if Israel ceases any such evictions and demolitions during the moratorium.
Freezing all settlement construction has been urged for years by the Quartet - America, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Again the Quartet cannot complain at Abbas’s demand that the moratorium be extended to all such construction - not merely residential houses.
Whilst President Obama had urged Abbas and Netanyahu to enter into negotiations without preconditions prior to the current moratorium offered by Israel, Abbas will lose little support from the Quartet - if any - as he continues to refuse to negotiate until there is a total freeze.
Netanyahu should have prevented the current state of uncertainty arising by initially putting a deadline on the resumption of negotiations and declaring that in default the moratorium would end and a resumption of unrestricted building activity in the West Bank would immediately follow.
As time drags on the folly and consequences of failing to stipulate this time constraint becomes clear for all to see. Overlooking such a small but highly significant detail is unforgivable.
The moratorium in its present form is bad news for Israel and a classic blunder that has caused and will cause significant financial and social consequences for Israel and its citizens until it is rectified.
Perhaps Netanyahu will come to his senses now that the issue has come before the Courts.
The sooner a deadline for the resumption of negotiations is announced by Israel - the sooner some clarity and certainty will be established to replace what is developing into a very tense and dangerous political void.