Every few days, Israel's prime minister repeats his commitment to freeze West Bank settlements and remove illegal outposts. Such commitments and statements from successive Israeli governments have been a part of our lives since the 1993 Oslo agreement.
However, since then, the number of the settlers in the occupied territories has more than doubled. Palestinians interpret that surge as proof that Israel doesn't really want peace. Otherwise, they say, why would it continue to build in areas it intends to evacuate? This was one of the factors behind the deep Palestinian frustration that fed the eruption of the second intifada in 2000.
And now, yet again, our government is announcing that this time, settlement construction will really, sincerely be frozen. Is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert serious? And if he is, what does he really mean by "freezing" settlements?
"Freezing" can mean one of three things. The simple, natural meaning is the cessation of all construction: Any bulldozer currently moving earth in a settlement would cease and desist, pending the final political accord between Israel and the Palestinians. The second meaning is that only construction that has not begun - including construction that has passed the government authorization process - will not go forward. The third meaning would be to avoid planning for future construction.
The first option clearly is not what Mr. Omert has in mind. In almost every construction site, work continues today, more than two months after the Annapolis summit. Pay a visit to Maaleh Adumim, Beitar Illit, Karnei Shomron, Neve Daniel, Alon Shvut or Barkan, and you will witness concrete being poured and trucks delivering bricks and shingles.
The second option - freezing new construction - apparently isn't what Mr. Olmert has in mind, either. Immediately after the Annapolis conference, the Ministry of Housing issued a tender for building 307 housing units in Har Homa and another 440 units in Talpiot East, both in East Jerusalem. In the new state budget, which was recently approved by the Knesset, more than $4.3 million was approved for new housing in Maaleh Adumim and Har Homa.
Another important test for freezing construction is that of Givat Zeev: Nine years ago, a plan was authorized to build about 600 housing units. A lack of demand at the site, though, forced investors to abandon the project. Recently, marketing of homes at this location was renewed, although new building permits are required. The government's position on this building project is not yet clear.
So we remain with the third option: avoiding future planning only. But even if Mr. Olmert really means to implement that option, construction in the settlements will continue. The head of Israel's West Bank Civil Administration recently declared that there were plans for thousands of new housing units that had been approved long ago. These units have passed all the licensing procedures; construction can start at any moment.
Add to that existing plans in the process of being approved and you have a robust settlement push with tens of thousands of new residents - negotiations or no.
In practice, only when we see the bulldozers turn back and leave the settlements would we know the freeze is real and the government is seeking peace.
And what about the settlement blocs on the western side of the separation fence, which Israeli leaders said they intend to annex to Israel in the future and which they have been hinting are not included in the freeze? Construction there, before the conclusion of peace negotiations, strengthens the Palestinian militants who claim that talking to Israel only leads to more settlement expansion.
Israel's interest is to prove that it pursues peace and to strengthen the moderates who still seek dialogue. There will be enough time to build in these blocs after an accord is reached, in agreed-upon areas, subject to land-swap arrangements. Until then, the freeze should be applied there as well.
Now, about those illegal outposts ...
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