August 19, 2019

Four questions about 14,000 Palestinian houses in the city of Qalqilya

Four questions are bothering Israel today as if they were one question. But these are not identical questions. The first question is: should Israel allow the building of 14,000 new homes for Palestinians in the city of Qalqilya in area C of the West Bank (the area controlled by Israel)? The second question is: how does the Israeli cabinet make such decisions? The third question is: who are the Prime Minister and the cabinet afraid of? And the fourth question is: do we believe the ministers of the Israeli cabinet?

The story goes as follows: last week, it was reported that Israel decided to allow the building of 14,000 new apartments on more than 600 acres in the Israeli-controlled Area C “surrounding the city.” This would more than double the size of Qalqilya’s population – currently, it’s a city of about fifty thousand Palestinians. And it would double it as it grows westward, that is, bringing it closer to the Green Line and to Israel. And it would double it while Israeli settlers who live in area C can only dream about such massive construction.

The report triggered criticism from the usual suspects on the right, especially the ministers of the Jewish Home Party, but then also by Likud ministers, some of which are members of the cabinet. Strange: were they not the ones approving this construction plan? The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that yes. They did. But several ministers insisted that they do not remember ever approving such a plan. “I don’t understand who gave the Civil Administration the authority to approve such a large-scale building plan,” said Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud). The Prime Minister reassessed his response, and then changed it – no such decision was made.

No such decision? But you just said the opposite! True, there was confusion. Minister Zeev Elkin explained this morning that the cabinet did discuss a plan for Qalqilya, but not this plan for Qalqilya. Hence the confusion. The PM remembered something, and did not understand why the ministers are criticizing a plan that was under discussion and on which they voted, and only then he realized that the plan they were talking about is a much more ambitious plan than the one the cabinet voted on. The cabinet will have to reassess this plan. And it is not at all clear that the plan will get its approval. In fact, the more likely outcome is that it will not get the cabinet’s approval.

Now to the questions, beginning with the fourth: do we believe this version of what happened? An alternative version would take us to question number three: Who are the prime minister and the cabinet afraid of? This alternative version goes as follows: the cabinet approved a plan. The plan was then criticized by the settlers and their allies. Cabinet members from the Likud Party panicked, because of the settlers’ political power, which can affect the ministers’ political future. So the ministers joined the criticism, forcing the Prime Minister to follow, lest he loses points in his battle – against Naftali Bennet of the Jewish Home – for the leadership of the right.

The second question is the one I find the most troubling. Israel’s cabinet makes many decisions. Some of them, many of them, are of great importance. The cabinet votes on matters of war and peace, life and death. The cabinet ought to be a serious body – not a body whose resolutions are not clear, whose discussions not remembered, whose decisions are inconclusive. There are only two options: either the cabinet discussed the Qalqilya plan or it did not. There are only two options: either the cabinet decided on the Qalqilya plan or it did not.

If it did, and if the ministers believe this was the right decision, its members should be courageous enough to back it amid criticism – or admit that they were mistaken amid criticism. Denying that it was ever discussed is an embarrassment.

If it was not, and if someone else took the liberty of approving such plan without consultation with the cabinet – this person or body (likely, the Defense Ministry, or the office of The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) should be censured by the Prime Minister and the cabinet. You do not want 14 thousand new homes built in the West Bank, in areas under Israeli control, without having the cabinet’s approval.

And this is where the first question comes into play. Israel has a policy of rewarding Palestinians cities that show a desire for economic development and do not produce terrorism and chaos. Qalqilya is apparently such a city. So giving it assistance makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, Qalqilya is very close to the Green Line, and expanding it westward might not be the best of moves as one thinks about a future of separation between Israel and the Palestinians.

The complaint of the right doesn’t focus on these two considerations. It focuses mainly on the settlers’ ability to also build in area C. If Palestinians can build, why not us? And that’s, of course, a good question for which there are also answers – for example: it will not help Israel as it negotiates the future of peace talks with the Trump administration. The cabinet has to weigh all these questions and give a coherent answer. It has to give the best answer it can give and stick by it. And it could be nice if the answer is presented in a way that would make us – Israelis – feel that we are in good hands of people who pay proper attention to the matters at hand as they ponder their consequences. The possible expansion of Qalqilya is an important matter. Having a functioning cabinet is more important.