Why Netanyahu put the brakes on his plan to build in E1

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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The Jerusalem-area settlement of Ma’ale Adumim (Photo: Ammar Awad/Reuters)

The contentious plan to build in the E1 corridor has been put on hold for now. The reason? Forging ahead with the plan would do irrevocable damage to Israel’s worldwide image and spark international consternation at a time when Israel needs Western support. But at the same time, a building approval binge has taken place in other areas in Jerusalem.

As blogger and academic Michael Koplow noted, Ynet News reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put the brakes on construction in E1, the name given to the strip of land linking Jerusalem with the illegal settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. The planned moves for E1 garnered international attention and outrage due to the fact that building there would be the “fatal heart attack” to the two-state solution, inasmuch as it would effectively bisect the West Bank and cut off access to Jerusalem for West Bank Palestinians. (Though I should note Ma’ale Adumim does a good job at that by itself, as Larry Derfner showed in Foreign Policy.)

The E1 “blueprints were approved by the Defense Minister Ehud Barak, but the Prime Minister’s Office then ordered not to file them with the zoning committee at this time,” reported YNet last week.

Someone’s attuned to international opinion in Netanyahu’s government. After the E1 building plans were announced as a punitive measure following the Palestinians’ status upgrade at the United Nations, European nations reacted with anger. European states also took some mild action, like summoning Israeli ambassadors for explanation of the move. And European states started contemplating the use of sanctions on Israel if they went ahead with the project, though the leaks to Israeli media were likely a warning rather than something Europe was seriously contemplating.

American Jewish groups have also weighed in. As Allison Deger reported yesterday, over 700 Jewish rabbis, cantors and rabbinical students signed a letter in protest of the plans for E1 and delivered it to the Israeli prime minister’s office. This move, coordinated by J Street and Americans for Peace Now, followed earlier cries of protest from those groups.

Moving ahead with E1 plans now would do some damage to Israel’s relations with the U.S. and Europe, as well as the ability of American Jewish groups to effectively explain Israel’s position. The two-state solution remains an article of faith for advocacy inside the Jewish organizational world, but that advocacy would become untenable if E1 was built.

The delay in plans to build for E1 comes in the midst of an Israeli election season which has seen the meteoric rise of the right, specifically the rise of Naftali Bennett and his party, the Jewish Home party. A member of the HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party criticized the decision to halt the E1 project last week. “The halting of the E1 plans by the Prime Minister’s Office proves that Netanyahu’s statements regarding the settlements are only sleight-of-hand. A day after the elections we’ll rediscover the true Netanyahu, the one who froze construction and succumbed to pressure,” said Member of Knesset Uri Ariel, a member of the Jewish Home party.

So Netanyahu has made a calculation: allowing some votes on his right to be lost is the price to pay for keeping cordial relations with Europe, the U.S. and Jewish communities in the West. And HaBayit HaYehudi, whose leader advocates for annexing Area C of the West Bank, is banking on the fact that the delay in E1 will help them win votes. Still, Netanyahu is likely to be keep the prime minister’s seat after this month’s elections, and so it remains unlikely that construction in E1 will forge ahead.

But just as the world’s attention was honing in on E1, the floodgates for other illegal Jerusalem settlements flew open. The Associated Press reported December 27 that “Israel is planning its biggest construction surge in east Jerusalem in decades in a move that critics argue would cement its grip on the contested territory…The planned construction contributes to completing a ring of Jewish areas around the Arab inner core of east Jerusalem, making it more difficult to one day link it to the West Bank, which surrounds the city on three sides.”

The organization Terrestrial Jerusalem, run by expert Daniel Seidemann (who believes that Netanyahu will in fact forge ahead with E1 plans before the elections, contra me and Koplow), has details on this settlement binge. On the day before Christmas, the Jerusalem Regional Planning Committee approved plans to build new illegal settlements “on the southwest slopes of the settlement of Gilo, between the current footprint of Gilo and the Palestinian town of Beit Jala and the beleaguered village of Wallajeh, whose residents are fighting Israeli demolitions orders against many of their homes, as well as facing near-total isolation due to the route of the barrier through their lands,” according to Seidemann’s organization. “The planned units are, in their entirety, to be located beyond the built-up area of the settlement of Gilo, expanding the footprint of this already massive settlement to the southwest….[This plan] will further complicate final status arrangements in Jerusalem. This plan is not merely about expanding construction inside an existing settlement – it is about significantly expanding the settlement in the direction of the neighboring West Bank towns.”

Other settlement plans explained by Terrestrial Jerusalem include approval for a new settlement called Givat Hamatos–which would be the first new settlement in Jerusalem since construction of Har Homa near Bethlehem.

Netanyahu is not able to get away with building in the E1 corridor. That remains a step too far for the world to ignore. But when it comes to other, less well-known settlements, there’s no problem. And so while E1 won’t be able to fatally kill the possibility of a Palestinian state, the quiet building in other areas of Jerusalem will do just the same.

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