Lieberman Blocks Settlement Moratorium

Israel’s foreign minister insists that the moratorium on settlement construction be lifted.

Israel’s nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party will attempt to block any attempt to extend a moratorium on settlement construction in Palestinian territory. According to party leader and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli government must deliver on its promise to end the temporary building stop this month.

Ending the moratorium risks undermining the peace process that was relaunched in Washington last week under the auspices of President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

As far as the Palestinians are concerned, halting settlement construction in their territory is a nonnegotiable condition to bringing about permanent peace in the Middle East. They have threatened to walk away from the latest negotiations if the settlement freeze ends ends as planned. Extending it however imperils the stability of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for which the support of Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is Our Home”), currently represented with fifteen seats in the Knesset, is essential. Many members of the prime minister’s own Likud are also in favor of allowing Jewish colonists to build outside of Israel’s 1967 borders again.

The foreign minister has been skeptical of the peace talks that were resumed last week after a year of noninterference from the United States. “The more we lower expectations, the healthier it is,” he professed ahead of the negotiations in Washington between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Lieberman did signal a willingness to compromise, promising the Yediot Ahronot newspaper that he won’t quit the coalition if he doesn’t get his way. “We will not leave or bring down the government. We will fight from the inside for what we believe,” he said. Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, former foreign minister and still a prominent Likud leader, was more careful, claiming that an extension of the moratorium would pose a “huge danger” to the government. “Within the coalition, there is a huge majority against it,” he told reporters late Sunday.

Some 300,000 Israelis currently live in settlements on the West Bank which is home to approximately 2.5 million Palestinians. Another 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem which the Palestinians claim as their capital.

The extent of the drop in construction since the settlement slowdown began ten months ago is subject of debate. According to Israeli government statistics released last week, just five new building projects were undertaken on Palestinian territory in the first half of this year, compared with 673 in the first half of 2009.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with his Palestinian counterpart for a second round of talks next week in Egypt and Jerusalem. Secretary Clinton will attend both meetings.