Israeli settlements to receive cash boost

15:26, December 15, 2009      

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by David Harris

Just weeks after the Israeli government announced a partial freeze on settlement building in the West Bank, ministers have approved a new spending package that includes grants and tax breaks for an estimated 100,000 settlers.

The decision, taken at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday and emphasized by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a preferential treatment for national priority areas, was only a political move to placate the settlers, analysts said.

VERBAL FOCUS

The West Bank was not singled out for an investment package but was rather a part of a wider debate on changes to the areas designated for special help from central government.

Indeed, while the media attended the first moments of the cabinet session, Netanyahu chose not to focus on the West bank, nor Israeli Jews, but rather emphasize the minorities that he said are set to benefit from the change.

In the decision, "two million citizens are included. Approximately 40 percent of the State of Israel's non-Jewish citizens are included in this decision. We are providing benefits in education, employment and infrastructures," said Netanyahu.

The only hint he gave that settlers would also benefit was when he said that "we are also trying to provide tangible aid to those who bear the security burden every day."

Despite Netanyahu's seeming reticence to speak publicly about the money that will go to settlers, journalists in Israel immediately picked up on the alterations in priority zones as they pertain to the West Bank, which is deemed occupied territory by the international community.

ZONING TOOL

From time to time governments alter the national priority zone boundaries, bringing in one town, while allowing a farming community to fall out and so on.

It is based on a technique used in United Kingdom in the 1950s and 1960s, said David Newman, a professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in southern Israel.

The idea was to help ailing communities to get back on their feet. It did not always succeed. When aid money finally came to an end, some of those who had become too dependent on it simply went into decline.

In Israel, priority zoning is used as a political tool, said Jonathan Rynhold, a senior research associate at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv.

"Nearly 25 percent of the country is a priority zone. It's a way of keeping the coalition stable by adding areas where different people live and keeping them happy," Rynhold said.

Newman adds to this argument with a theory of his own. The areas of national priority are usually poor and far away from the commercial hub of the country, Tel Aviv. The conurbations that usually receive this aid are the victims of what Newman dubs "double peripherality." The communities tend to be far from the economic center of the country and are usually in a poorer socio-economic condition.

As a result, Newman wonders how the Israeli government can justify declaring some areas of the West Bank as national priority zones. Many of the settlements are just a 20-minute drive from the greater Tel Aviv area. Were it not for the fact that the West Bankis a politically sensitive region, many, many more people would live there and commute to work in the nearby built-up and industrialized coastal plain, Newman told Xinhua on Monday.

"You're giving them the benefits of the periphery, so why on earth should people move to the periphery?" said Newman.

The only reason, he concludes, is political.

IMPLICATIONS FOR PEACE PROCESS

The announcement of the changes in demarcation for the zoning was made on Sunday, just three weeks after Netanyahu announced a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.

The Palestinians were demanding a full halt to building work in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the end, Israel agreed to a 10-month partial cessation of building starts in the West Bank.

While the freeze fell short of Palestinian expectations and the hopes of the international community, it was sufficient a gesture to severely concern the leaders of the settlement movement. Thousands of supporters of the settlements protested in Jerusalem last Wednesday in the first very public act of opposition to the freeze.

Rynhold believes the zoning decision was targeted at placating the settlers.

"This was aimed at easing the pain and softening the blow and therefore softening the level of political opposition by giving them a sop," said Rynhold.

That having been said, Rynhold points out that the Prime Minister's Office has made it clear the freeze takes priority over the zoning.

However, Rynhold believes the zoning decision will not overly perturb the Palestinians.

NOT PERMANENT

There is a good chance that the decision taken by the Netanyahu government on Sunday will be reversed by the next government or even be amended by the incumbent cabinet in a year or two, the analysts said.

The zoning map is altered on a regular basis and merely reflects the political whim of the serving government at any particular time.

However, Newman holds the opinion that the timing of the announcement will likely not please Washington, nor will it go far enough to satisfy the settlers.

"It's a way of trying to keep everybody happy all of the time and what it does is keeps nobody happy any of the time," said Newman.

Source: Xinhua
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