The Proposal to Freeze Government Construction – What does it Mean?

The Resumption of Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations and the Settlements

Since the end of the ten months Settlement Moratorium in September 2010, there is a surge in construction in settlements, with 2,600 new units started to be built in the West Bank settlements (East Jerusalem excluded). As the international community is seeking a formula that could bring the Israelis and the Palestinians back to the negotiations table, it is clear that in order to resume the negotiations Israel will have to freeze settlement activity, at least for a limited period of time, and refrain from any provocative steps in the settlements.

According to recent reports, Netanyahu is offering a construction freeze of governmental construction in the settlements.According to the classical definition of “governmental construction” (aka “public construction”), such offer will at best slow only partially and insignificantly the pace of construction and will allow 84% of the construction to go on as usual.

Potential meanings of a “Government Construction Freeze”

1. Stop of the construction that is initiated by the Government (“no new tenders”) – The classical interpretation of the phrase “Government Construction” (as opposed to “Private Construction”) is the construction of projects that are planned and initiated by the Israeli Government, mainly by the Ministry of Housing. Usually those projects need to go through a process of bidding before implementation, and such a freeze might be called a “no new tenders freeze”.

In recent years there was a drop in the public construction in settlements and a rise in the private construction. In the first half of 2011 the government construction was merely 16% of the total construction in the settlements, while 84% was initiated by private initiators.

The percentage of Government Construction in settlements - according to the Israeli CBS data.

The percentage of Government Construction in settlements – according to the Israeli CBS data.

The past few years showed that even when there is less government construction, the total construction in settlements is not changing and the private construction compensates for it.

Total number of construction starts in settlements, both private and public - according to the Israeli CBS data (the data for year 2011 is of Peace Now)

Total number of construction starts in settlements, both private and public – according to the Israeli CBS data (the data for year 2011 is of Peace Now)

Interestingly, the Netanyahu govenement have already imposed a de-facto “no new tenders freeze”. In the almost 3 years of the Netanyahu govenement, there was no signal tender published in West Bank settlements. However, on the ground the total construction in settlements only increased (except in the 10 months settlement moratorium).

2. Stop of any new governmental approval for new construction (“a passive freeze”) – Any new construction in settlements (private or public) has to go through several stages of approval by the government, at the planning phase (approval to promote the plan, deposit it for public review and to approve it), and at the implementation phase (approval to market the land for potential contractors and residents). Another potential interpretation for “a freeze of govenement construction” can be that the Israeli government might offer a stop of all new approvals by the government, a kind of “passive freeze” according to which the Israeli govenement refrains from actively promoting or approving any new construction.

Such a “passive freeze” will not stop the construction in the settlements. According to Peace Now count, there are around 10,000 new residential units that can start to be built without any further approval by the govenement, based on approvals given in the past. In the plans that were approved in the past there are aprox. 38,000 units that were not built yet, out of which some 10,000 have already been approved for marketing in the past. This means that even if the Israeli government stops any new approval for construction, thousands of units could still be built in settlements and might torpedo the negotiations.

In order to stop new construction, there must be an “active freeze” which requires a government decision that is interpreted into a military order prohibiting any new construction even when approvals have been granted in the past. This was the case in the 10 months moratorium imposed by the Netanyahu govenement in 2010.

3. Stop of construction on “State Land” (aka “Government Land” or “Public Land”) – Another potential interpretation of a freeze of government construction could be, though less likely, a complete stop of any construction on Government Lands in the settlements. The vast majority of the construction in settlements (estimated to be over 90% of the construction) is on lands that are considered as “State Land” or “Govenement Land”. Stopping the construction on State Land will be a significant halt to the settlements, leaving only few projects on lands that were privately bought from Palestinians.

Nonetheless, in order to fully stop the construction on State Land, the government will have to issue a military order (like in the previous freeze) that will prohibit any use of Government lands, including lands that have already been allocated and approved for construction. Without such an order the Israeli government will only stop new allocations and approvals for marketing, maintaining the settlers the power to still build the 10,000 units that have already received the necessary approvals.

The Netanyahu govenement have proven in the past that it can freeze the settlements without the coalition breaking up, and although the 10 months freeze wasn’t complete and had many loopholes, still it was significant, and dropped the construction in settlements to an unprecedented low pace.