Mixed Messages

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I think it was Machiavelli who said that “a prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise”, implying that the act of ruling often necessitates foul political maneuvering. So when we hear that Israel’s latest “National Priority List”  includes a record number of settlements , including four remote settlements once considered illegal, just days after the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians, we would be wise to keep the words of this 15th century Italian strategist in mind.

This list, published and updated every year, contains 600 towns and settlements on both sides of the 1967 lines eligible for extra public funding, including  funding for 30% of the cost of hotels and other tourist ventures, as well as reduced costs for housing and infrastructure and aid in cultural and environmental projects. In total, the State invests tens of millions of dollars. It is no surprise then that the process of forming this list has become a showground for political manipulations. The end-result of these manipulations often reflects the current balance of power in Israeli politics, and this year’s list is no exception to this rule.

Resuming the peace talks with the Palestinians without bringing down what is probably one of the most rightist governments in Israel’s history, necessitated some serious political maneuvering by Netanyahu. To get his government to agree to releasing prisoners last week, Netanyahu needed to give his coalition partners something to show their constituents.

The most prominent component of this coalition needing to be placated was Naftali Bennett. Bennett, representing a segment of Israeli society standing steadfast in its refusal to give away settlements in a future peace deal, needed to go home with something to show for not more actively opposing the resumption of talks. And he got just that from this list.

The list is also cleverly built to aid another important component of the coalition – Yair Lapid. The prince of Israeli politics was voted in on the wings of his promises to play a different kind of political game and cater to the needs and interests of the Israeli middle-class by ensuring an equal “share of the burden”. The disappointment by Lapid’s voters, likely surprised at finding West Bank settlements in line to receive millions of dollars of extra funding, will be balanced by the fact that ultra-religious settlements have been removed from the list.

Comprising such a “rightist” list, also helps Netanyahu pacify the growing rebellious elements within the Likud, whom in a show of force two weeks ago, took hold of every significant position within the party.

All in all, Netanyahu can mark another small victory. Internally, other than the objections expressed by four members of his cabinet who abstained from the vote approving the list, Netanyahu came out politically unscathed . Outwardly, despite the potential for substantial objections from the Americans, Palestinians and Europeans, the vote received little focus. Indeed, it would not be farfetched to assume this list was brought up as part of the deal to resume the peace talks, and was regarded by the Palestinians as a relatively harmless price to pay.

The “National Priority List” then, could easily be called the “Political Priority List”. More than anything, it is a chance to understand the intricate relations between the various elements of the government. Still, I have to question the logic behind this continuing projection of a mixed message. You’re either in or you’re out. This list only reinforces those claiming Israel is using the resumed talks as a smokescreen for its real objectives – the strengthening of its  hold on the West Bank.  Even if the Americans and the Palestinians were in the know about this list, the overall message being sent here, to the already skeptical Israeli and Palestinian public alike, is problematic.

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