Ten days after Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon told The Times of Israel that Benjamin Netanyahu had imposed a “silent freeze” on settlement building, the prime minister reportedly confirmed that he has suspended some construction in West Bank settlements, and cited American pressure.
Netanyahu told a group of settler leaders that the activity of the planning council of Israel’s Civil Administration, the body responsible for authorizing construction in the West Bank, had been partially suspended because the United States demanded it, the news site nrg.co.il reported Friday.
Netanyahu, who met Thursday night with mayors from 20 West Bank settlements, said the United States recently demanded that the Civil Administration not only refrain from issuing tenders for construction, but also freeze the activity of its planning committee altogether and not approve new projects that would later require tenders.
At the meeting, which took place at the Prime Minister’s Bureau, Netanyahu reportedly told the mayors he was “the defender of settlements,” adding that the he had resisted earlier Obama administration demands that “not a single brick be laid, not a single house be built.”
One of the visiting mayors told Netanyahu that not allowing the planning council to convene meant a de facto freeze on construction because “without its approval, the smallest actions cannot be completed, even not placing a lamp post above the guard post, much less preparing for the coming school year,” nrg reported.
At a briefing with Times of Israel staffers on May 19, Danon said Israeli authorities recently imposed a “silent freeze” on planning for further settlement expansion. While construction work is currently taking place on already approved projects, no new developments are planned and no tenders and bids are being issued, Danon said.
“I don’t know of a formal policy to limit building. But when you look, de facto, what’s happening on the ground, yes, you feel there is a silent freeze in terms of planning and in terms of government construction,” Danon (Likud) said. “And that’s something that bothers me.”
This “freeze” is being enforced everywhere — within and outside the so-called settlement blocs, he said. “If you don’t allow any planning, it will stop. You will have no [housing] units for youngsters in Ariel, in Maaleh Adumim. This is happening already.”
Danon said he wasn’t sure why the government would agree to quietly freeze settlement expansion, suggesting that pressure from the United States might be behind it. “Building in Judea and Samaria is a major issue among the Americans,” he said, using the Biblical names for the West Bank. “A lot of pressure is being put on us.”
Dani Dayan, of the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria, backed Danon’s claim of a “silent” settlement freeze. “For the last three months, the planning committee of the Civil Administration in charge of building has not convened even once,” he told The Times of Israel. “Plans for new buildings were not advanced one inch, let alone approved. There are no new tenders at all,” he said.
Construction is proceeding on pre-approved projects, Dayan said. “There is still some water in the pipeline, but if no new water is added, then clearly the pipeline will dry up soon.”
“As far as we know, this is because of a direct order from the Prime Minister’s Office,” Dayan charged, adding that he assumes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “intimidated” by “threats” from the White House or the State Department.
The PMO declined to comment on Danon’s statements.
According to unnamed senior US officials, President Barack Obama believes that Israeli announcements of construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem throughout the nine months of the US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were more central than any other factor in causing the negotiations’ collapse. Earlier this month in Washington, US special envoy Martin Indyk said settlement activity had “sabotaged negotiations” and now represented “a roadblock to resumption of negotiations.” In a report late last month, the dovish Peace Now NGO said Israel had approved the construction of nearly 14,000 homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the nine months of peace talks.
Hagit Ofran, settlement watch project director for Peace Now, said that it was “premature” to speak about a settlement freeze. “Not enough time has passed since the last time new tenders were published,” she said. The Civil Administration’s planning committee is meeting constantly, and republished tenders for new housing units as early as the end of April, she said.