Today’s Israel news is focused on the failed Knesset bill to legalize the Ulpana neighborhood of Beit El, and thus set a new precedent for all settlement activity in the West Bank.
There is some sense that Bibi came out on top, because he not only defeated the bill (which appeared to have support within the government coalition and his own party), but also because at the same time he ensured continued support from nationalists by promising to not only move the Ulpana families elsewhere in Beit El, but also to construct new buildings in Ariel, Ma’ale Adumim, Adam, and Kiryat Arba—for a total of 551 new housing units. And that doesn’t include the 300 units Bibi has promised to build elsewhere in Beit El, to make up for the “loss” of Ulpana.
For his part, Amir Mizroch wonders whether this is a pyrrhic victory, since the considerable expansion of settlement activity to offset Ulpana might lead to “a tangle with international legal and diplomatic ramifications.”
I don’t see any contradiction between these two assessments. In fact, I think the lesson of Ulpana is much simpler: that Bibi’s policies are more reactive than anything else.
Although he does believe in the Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel, and that at least parts of the West Bank belong (and will remain) under Israeli sovereignty, Bibi has no real strategic design and, without one, no set of tactical plans to achieve it.
At the same time, Bibi is the consummate politician (whether he is successful as one is another story). He works hard to balance out the multitude of pressures that all Israeli leaders face: external ones from the United States, American Jewry, and the Europeans; internal ones from party and coalition members, voters, and powerful interest groups like the settlement movement.
It’s true that Bibi has matured considerably since his first term as Prime Minister. He doesn’t stumble with his eyes anymore closed into messes like the opening of the Western Wall tunnel in 1996, which led to scores of deaths among Israelis and Palestinians. But given his modus operandi, he cannot exert control over developments in either Israeli domestic or foreign policy. The very act of creating his grand coalition was only to trade the uncertainty of upcoming elections for the certainty of a stable coalition, however long it could last.
Bibi is less a leader than a manager. His task, as he sees it, is simply to balance all these competing forces against each other, reconcile them with his own personal ideology, and remain at the top of the political hierarchy.
Given this, as other neighborhoods are built or expanded in the West Bank (and there is no indication that they won’t be), look for similar compromises to come out of the disputes over them.