It is a story as idiotic as it sounds: an Israeli minister of housing decides to start the preliminary planning of 24,000 housing units in the West Bank. The outraged responses start coming in. The Prime Minister then orders the minister – Uri Ariel – to reconsider. The end. Until the next round.
This is not really a story about settlement building and about the chances of having an agreement with the Palestinians. In fact, the chances that these housing units will ever be built are quite similar to the chances of Israel reaching an agreement with the Palestinian Authority in the near future (and vice versa). So what we have here is a construction project that will not be built threatening an agreement that will not be signed. What we have here is press release politics- Israel's press release politics. A reason for outrage indeed, but for reasons other than the ones which ignited the initial outrage of early respondents to the "preliminary planning" project.
Uri Ariel is a minister from the right wing of the right-wing party Habayit Hayehudi. This party had made it a habit to oppose the policies of the government of which it is a member, and to protest against the actions of the government of which it is a member. Thus, not long ago, minister Ariel joined a demonstration against the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. "We tell the families of the victims, that we are with them with all our heart and soul," Ariel said at that unmemorable event. "Together we will fight for the security of Israel and its residents. Enough terror, enough freeing of terrorists".
The debate about whether releasing Palestinian terrorists from jail is a good idea or not is a worthy one (on which I wrote here). But the government had this debate and decided to act. Ariel is a member of the government that voted for the release – and even though he voted against this move, he shares the responsibility for it like all other members of the government. If he can no longer take it, he should quit the government. But he still hasn't. He prefers to protest against his own decision. In the bizarro world of Israeli party politics that's possible.
You may ask: why doesn't the Prime Minister fire a minister that protests against the government of which he is a member? Why doesn’t he fire a minister that boldly enrages the world with plans for settlement construction just when Israel is struggling to convince the world to refrain from signing a bad agreement with Iran?
The answer is simple: Prime Minister Netanyahu needs Ariel's vote- and his party's vote- in the Knesset. They are members of the coalition, and if he fires Ariel he doesn't have a majority in the Knesset. That is, unless a new coalition emerges that can satisfy both Netanyahu and other coalition members like Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid.
You may ask: why isn't the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, Naftali Bennet, called upon to put some order among the ranks? The answer, again, is simple – but this time it has two components: first of all, Bennett can't be called upon because he can be as bad as Ariel when it comes to working against his own government. Second, Bennett can't control Ariel because they represent different factions within their fractured Jewish Home (Habayit Hayehudi is Hebrew for Jewish Home). In other words: Bennett is the leader of his party in name only, but doesn't truly control all of it. He is the leader of a party that includes members from secular to haredi, from moderately hawkish to radical, from reasonably liberal to very conservative.
The bottom line: Ariel did what he did to satisfy his constituency. Netanyahu did what he had to do as Prime Minister. The American administration did what is expected of it in such occasions. The only ones that still haven't done what they need to do are the Israeli voters. These voters – if they are as tired as I am of press release politics – should punish the parties of ministers like Ariel on Election Day (don't hold your breath though: Habayit Hayehudi is doing just fine according to the polls).