Uri Ariel tells i24news the US and Palestinians know about construction, ‘It’s all a well coordinated game’
The only indisputable consensus in Netanyahu’s otherwise fragile coalition seems to revolve around the personality of Housing Minister Uri Ariel. In recent weeks a whole range of adjectives has been attributed to Ariel, a member of the right-wing Jewish Home party.
Science Minister Yaakov Peri, the former head of the Shin Bet security agency, called him a “provocateur” and urged him not to disrupt the peace process; Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, in charge of the dialog with Palestinians, was even more blunt, labeling Ariel a “liar.” Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reprimanded him recently for announcing inflammatory settlement construction plans without his office’s approval.
This is but a small sampling of reactions to Ariel’s defiant announcements about future plans to continue construction in all of the West Bank. It’s not necessarily the intention that infuriates his partners; it’s more the timing he picks to announce it — always close to another round of talks between Israelis and Palestinians, always close to yet another visit by Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry, by the way, is certainly not Ariel’s favorite person. “He is not an honest broker,” he said recently about the relentless top diplomat and even insinuated that Kerry only pretends not to know that construction in the settlements has never really stopped. To Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Ariel regularly refers as “the one from Ramallah.”
By and large it sounds as if Ariel, now in a sensitive key position in government, has never really internalized the drastic change in his life. He still acts and reacts like the feisty head of the Council of Jewish Settlements (Yesha), a job he held some years ago. It seems Ariel, himself a settler from Kfar Adumim, quite enjoys both his new job in the cabinet and, at the same time, the ability to remain a one-man protest group, an “enfant terrible.”
“This is not how I feel,” Ariel said in an interview to i24news; “I’m certainly not a “Yesha” representative any more. In fact, I spend about five percent of my time dealing with construction in the settlements. I certainly do feel the shift from extra-parliamentary activity to the burden of being a cabinet member. Yet I consciously chose a different style. No, I don’t mean dress code only, though I honestly don’t understand the role of a tie.”
Part of your unique code seems to be a constant effort to sabotage the Israeli-Palestinian talks.
“Believe me, there is no need on my part to sabotage them. This is ‘Arab work’ [a derogatory reference meaning ‘shoddy work,’ LG]. I mean the Arabs themselves will reject any solution offered, without my participation in that process.”
In fact, you’re being portrayed not by politicians only but by most political analysts as a time bomb on the threshold of the dialog.
“Big mistake. Given the choice, I’d rather be minister of education. But I do what I have to do; and enjoy every moment of it.”
And yet your arm is being twisted. You had to give up on construction in the most sensitive area, E1. The prime minister himself had to make a statement denying your plan.
“It’s true I want to build more. It’s also true that all construction in the settlements carries an additional burden of political and diplomatic ramifications. It’s true that even as we speak, there is a way and a need to build thousands of housing units in Judea and Samaria. The fact that it is not done has nothing to do with technical or financial constraints. But any way, we as a ministry can build only in the more urban areas, those closer to the Green Line. The construction in the more remote rural areas is all private and I honestly don’t know what is happening there.”
You sound almost victimized by the situation. Yet, it is you who defies the rules of the game and infuriates everybody — your colleagues in the government, the Palestinians and certainly the Americans.
“Don’t get it wrong. It’s all a well coordinated game, especially between Israel, the Palestinians and the Americans. This Palestinian whining and idle threats to quit the negotiating table have nothing to do with reality.”
“Basically, construction in Judea and Samaria continues all the time. All parties involved know it. The fact that the Americans choose to promote the announcement of future construction plans preceding the release of Palestinian killers by Israel does not mean it’s my best timing. It’s probably their best timing.”
Can you elaborate? Why should it be the most comfortable timing for the Americans, as you imply?
“I don’t know. I know it’s not my most comfortable timing. In fact, it’s explicitly against my will. I’m not aware of all the intricate calculations, but I did not choose the timing of these announcements.”
Are you implying that the prime minister’s office chose the timing?
“I don’t know. In the end – these are kinds of “understandings” between those three parties – Israel, the Americans and the Palestinians.
If so, why were you scolded by PM Netanyahu?
“I wasn’t ‘scolded.’ There was a certain level of coordination as to what he was going to say to help him get out of some labyrinth.”
I’m trying to understand your philosophy. It may look as if the value of ‘land’ is worth a very heavy price for you: the isolation of Israel, boycotts. It feels as if the land is worth dying for. Is it so? Is there anything not worth dying for?
“It’s a very good question. It’s obviously worth dying to preserve the life of those who reside in Zion. The ruling circle has to assess the cost, and not everything is worth dying for. But in our present situation, guarding the borders of Israel is a value worth dying for. I have seen no proof to convince me that if we all live only in Tel Aviv, lives will be spared.”
Continuing construction in the settlements is worth the price of a third Palestinian intifada?
“A state cannot cave in under the threat of ‘to be continued.’”
Let’s talk about the limitations of your job. I saw you in Gush Katif [the former Jewish settlements in Gaza] on several occasions when the settlements were being evacuated in 2005. You were a Knesset member then, yet you approached soldiers on duty and urged them to refuse orders to remove settlers. Would you do it again now?
“If we get to that – come and talk to me again.”
What’s your assessment of the number of housing units that will be built in the territories in the next few years?
“It’s hard to know, given the complex diplomatic considerations. I figure several thousand – up to 10,000.”