Tel Aviv Diary: Did Netanyahu Announce More Settlements to Help the GOP?

Jerusalem settlements
A laborer stands on an apartment building under construction in a Jewish settlement known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim, in an area of the West Bank that Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed to the city of Jerusalem, October 28, 2014. Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Henry Kissinger once remarked that Israel has no foreign policy, it only has domestic politics. This fact has been proved true, once again, in the last two days.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office announced he was moving along the design program for new housing in East Jerusalem and other places. The United States and the European Community condemned the announcement in the strongest terms, claiming that these actions would hurt any chance of bringing about peace. Today, Netanyahu responded by saying that all those who criticize the building plan in Jerusalem are disconnected from reality and are themselves hurting the chances for peace.

What makes this recent exchange all the more inexplicable is that when the original announcement was made, it was clear to political observers in Israel that the announcement would not result in one single building being built. Rather, it was a step in a long bureaucratic process that Netanyahu announced to try and satisfy his right wing voters.

The reality is that Netanyahu's government has made many such announcements and, in fact, has not built any more settlements than the governments before him. Indeed, he has actually built many fewer over the years.

Here is the number of building starts by the Israeli government in the West Bank outside of Jerusalem:

2008 - 2324

2009 - 2963

2010 - 730

2011 - 1088

2012 - 1100

2013 - 2500

So, why the sudden fight? It seems strange on many levels. On the American administration side, its seems odd that the White House would get into a fight with the Israeli government just a week before the mid-term elections over a nonexistent issue. The row has come just a week after Israeli defense Minister Bougie Ya'alon was publicly embarrassed by a White House leak that stated he had been denied the meetings with Obama administration officials he wanted.

On the Israeli side, it makes no sense to get into a fight with the American administration when critical negotiations are taking place with Tehran over the Iranian nuclear program, especially when the government in Jerusalem is worried that Israel's interests are not being taken into account in those negotiations.

Furthermore, we are at a juncture when America's diplomatic help is critical to blunt Palestinian diplomatic efforts. Doesn't it seem ludicrous to get into a fight at this time?

So, how can we explain this? On the American side, the only explanation is that the White House was simply unable to restrain its anger at Netanyahu for his latest action. The U.S. seems to see Netanyahu's move as purely provocative and has little patience for his domestic political concerns.

Why has Netanyahu picked a fight at this time? First, he is clearly most concerned with a challenge to his leadership from the right. Maintaining his position as the leader of the right in Israel is his foremost goal.

Second, he might have decided that President Barack Obama is such a lame duck president he no longer has to worry about a potential backlash from the United States. Of course, he does that at his own risk, since history has shown that U.S. presidents quickly become lame ducks in domestic affairs, but when it comes to foreign affairs they retain much of their power until their very last days in office. Finally, some observers in Israel believe that Netanyahu actually provoked this crisis to help the Republicans' election efforts. He initiated talk of building new settlements in the hope that a spat between Israel and the U.S. administration would convince some of Israel's supporters in the United States to vote for the Republican candidate over the Democrat in next week's elections, thus helping the Republicans achieve victory.

Which explanation is correct? Probably some combination of all three. Only his wife truly knows. Whatever the reasons, the situation is not healthy for either Israel or the U.S.

Political historian Marc Schulman is the editor of An archive of his recent daily reports from Tel-Aviv can be found here. He is also a columnist for the Times of Israel.