At the start of 2012, the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now, which seeks a two-state solution, warned that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was building Jewish settlements on the West Bank at a pace that, if allowed to continue, would carve up the land to a point that would doom the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. Twelve months later, that pace has nearly quintupled. In one week of December alone, Netanyahu’s government pushed forward plans for 11,000 homes beyond the Green Line that marked Israel’s 1967 border — nearly as many settler homes as were approved in the previous 10 years combined. The explosion in activity has made 2012 the Year of the Settlement, inspiring a new level of war-themed rhetoric from settlement opponents. “Unprecedented Planning Strike on East Jerusalem,” says the Peace Now website, “6,600 units in 4 days,”
Netanyahu makes no apology for the surge in promised building, despite waves of opprobrium from Europe and the U.S. Israelis go to the polls on Jan. 22, and the most serious challenge to Netanyahu’s campaign has come from a new party that champions settlements. The Prime Minister summoned the mayors of West Bank settlements to his Jerusalem office last week to make sure his efforts were getting noticed. “It’s obvious to all of you that this government has done a great deal in the past four years for the settlements in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name. “And we’re asking you to help spread the information among the residents of your districts.”
The most controversial move was to push forward plans to build on the last usable patch of Palestinian land east of Jerusalem, a parcel known as E1. (Plans to build on E1 have existed for 14 years but have been kept on hold; now, among other new steps, demolition orders have been issued for Bedouin homes and animal pens there.) Foreign diplomats, Palestinian officials and Israeli peace advocates warned that filling that space with Jewish homes amounted to the “doomsday” scenario, effectively destroying the possibility of ever building a Palestinian state on contiguous territory — the stated goal of the Oslo Peace Accords that since 1994 have defined the blueprint for ending the conflict between Jews and Arabs who have both claimed the same territory for more than a century.
At the same time, Netanyahu approved a flurry of the sort of construction that for three decades has steadily eaten away at Palestinian territories: adding 1,600 units in an East Jerusalem neighborhood reserved for ultra-Orthodox Jews; 1,242 for a massive subdivision overlooking Bethlehem – and pushing forward plans for a whole new settlement, Givat Hamatos, which would isolate an Arab district in southern Jerusalem that stands near the West Bank. Other units were scattered from the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem to a remote settlement in the northern interior of the West Bank.
But Netanyahu and his running mate, the former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, emphasized the building around Jerusalem. Israel annexed large tracts around the city after winning control of it — as well as the West Bank and Gaza — from Arab armies in the Six-Day War of 1967. Since then, the Israeli public resisted the notion of dividing Jerusalem in order to give the Palestinians a share of it as their own capital. In a new poll for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 78% of Jewish voters said they could reconsider their support for a political party that was willing to surrender sovereignty of (largely Arab) East Jerusalem and the Old City, something that existing proposals for peace require. The poll found that this position was held by 2 out of 3 Israeli voters who identify themselves as center-left, the group historically in favor of a negotiated peace. Nationalism trumps a great deal in the current campaign, as candidates across the political spectrum point out.
“There is a dispute between [Israel] and the world,” Lieberman said at last week’s official launch of the joint campaign of Netanyahu’s Likud party and his own Yisrael Beiteinu party, which present their candidates for parliament on a single list. “The dispute is over construction in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs. We therefore need a united and strong government that knows how to withstand pressure.”
The campaign is being fought on the turf of the right wing that has been ascendant in Israeli politics for years. Polls indicate the Likud-Beiteinu joint list has been slipping in the polls not because of Lieberman’s legal troubles — under investigation for more than a decade, the Soviet-era immigrant stepped down recently as Foreign Minister after being indicted for fraud but can still run for the Knesset — but because a more conservative party has surged in public opinion surveys. Jewish Home is led by Naftali Bennett, a former commando, high-tech entrepreneur, campaign manager and Chief of Staff to Netanyahu and, most recently, operational head of the main settler lobby. On a summons to Jewish pride and a platform that calls for annexing much of the West Bank as part of Israel, Bennett’s party has surged to third place in several polls, chiefly at the expense of Netanyahu’s base.
“I think the right is more attractive because it’s more radical now,” Yair Lapid, head of the new centrist Yesh Atid party, tells TIME. A former anchorman and columnist, Lapid favors negotiating with the Palestinians, but in a gesture that betrays the place settlers now enjoy in Israeli politics, he announced his platform in Ariel, a massive settlement built deep inside Palestinian territory.
Bennett, meanwhile, is moving the debate steadily to the right. The charismatic newcomer says he favors returning Netanyahu as Prime Minister — an outcome analysts call quite likely, given Netanyahu’s alliance with Lieberman’s party — but says a vote for his own right-wing Jewish Home will force Netanyahu to govern as conservatively as he campaigns. The flurry of announcements about settlement construction, on the eve of an election, provided the insurgent with a case in point. One of the reasons Netanyahu summoned the West Bank mayors, analysts say, was widespread skepticism that he would go forward with all the construction being announced.
“Israel’s problem isn’t construction but the talk about construction,” Bennett told reporters. “On the one hand, the government voices its support for a Palestinian state, and on the other, punishes the world and the Palestinians when they turn to the U.N. to receive state status. The solution is to speak in a clear voice, to withdraw our consent to a Palestinian state that everyone realizes isn’t going to be established. There needs to be more doing and less talking.”