As Biden touches down, Israel announces 112 new settlement units in stark violation of ‘freeze’

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Before even landing in Israel, Vice President Biden gave an interview to the Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahroneth. It was very much on the threat from Iran and US-Israeli military cooperation, but amazingly brief on upcoming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. According to various press reports,

"Biden, who arrives in Jerusalem on Monday and departs Israel on Thursday, was not expected to take part in indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks that would be spearheaded by Obama’s special envoy, George Mitchell, and could be announced during his visit, although he will be briefed on them."

Instead Biden is to engage in "public diplomacy." Reuters indicates, "that means reassuring anxious Israelis about Obama’s commitment to their security while explaining why they should be willing to make concessions for peacemaking."

It should be interesting to see what actual Israeli concessions Biden plans to promote. His fibbing to Yedioth on the West Bank construction freeze is not a promising sign.

"The construction freeze was a unilateral decision by the Israeli government, and it is not part of an agreement with the American administration or with the Palestinians."

"It is not everything that we wanted, but it is an important action that has significant impact on the ground." [My emphasis.]

Unless the CIA and the US Embassy are not doing their jobs, Biden should have been briefed that there is no indication of any settlement freeze. The Jerusalem Post analyzed the latest report from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) and concluded, "The number of housing starts in the settlements rose in the fourth quarter of 2009, precisely when the government-ordered freeze on such activity should have pushed the numbers down."

The statistics are incomplete and we will have to wait until the next CBS quarterly report to know for certain whether there has been any freezing of construction. However, the same article reported that despite Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i stating last month that "29 settlements were in violation of the freeze," to date the civil administration and the IDF "have destroyed construction at only three sites where work was ongoing…." The terms of the moratorium restricted construction halts to work on homes that lacked a foundation, while allowing work "to continue on 3,000 homes that did have foundations in place."

For those of you distressed that the West Bank settlers might be running out of accommodations to meet their robust "natural growth," the CBS also reported that "the number of homes completed in the settlements rose in 2009, to 2,077 homes, a 29.7% hike from the 1,601 West Bank Jewish homes that were finished in 2008." 

And just to demonstrate how significant an impact on the ground the freeze has had, on the day of Biden’s arrival Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved 112 new housing units in the ultra-orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit. The reason given was "safety issues", which evidently is one of the grounds for an exception to the announced freeze.

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