An international furore has arisen over Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s decision to move forward with the long-stalled planning of a new Jewish neighbourhood in the area between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim known by the name E-1. Construction on the project itself would not begin for, at the earliest, one or two years, and would require additional political approvals.
The Israeli announcement, which came shortly after the Palestinian delegation at the United Nations successfully achieved an upgrade in its status at the United Nations to that of a non-member observer state, was what one Israeli diplomatic source called a “proportional response” for the Palestinian unilateral move.
On Tuesday, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr echoed the response of several European countries by instructing his department to summon the Israeli ambassador to explain the action.
Major media of the reports and commentary on the decision, including those by the New York Times‘ Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren and the Sydney Morning Herald‘s International Editor Peter Hartcher here in Australia were universally critical, accepting unquestioningly the Palestinian perspective of the move that Jewish construction in this area “would separate the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem from Jerusalem” (according to Rudoren) and “frustrate the Palestinians’ effort to create a viable, contiguous state, [rendering] two-state solution… for all practical purposes, dead,” (says Hartcher). One anti-settlement activist dramatically told Rudoren and Reuters in separate interviews the plan was a “doomsday” scenario for the peace process.
Beyond the exaggerated rhetoric, however, evidence shows that the reality of the E-1 plan, which was originally developed by the Rabin government in the early 1990s, is far less sinister than these reports would suggest.
Back in 2009, long-time Ha’aretz reporter Nadav Shragai, an expert on Jerusalem-related issues and grandson of one of Jerusalem’s first mayors, Shlomo Zalman Shragai, summed up the situation well in a report for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs titled “Protecting the Contiguity of Israel: The E-1 Area and the Link Between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim”.
In that report, Shragai explained the strategic importance of E-1 for Israel’s security as a gateway to Ma’ale Adumim and a military lifeline to combat potential threats to the east. He went on to explain the increasing need to develop the site, while at the same time provided evidence to refute the claim that such development would prevent Palestinians from moving freely between West Bank cities and Jerusalem.
In his overview, Shragai pointed out that E-1 – also known as Mevasseret Adumim – is within the municipal boundary of Ma’ale Adumim and would therefore not be a new settlement, but an expansion of an existing settlement and not violate Israel’s understandings with the US under the previous administration.
This fact, incidentally, was corroborated in a blog post this week by President George W. Bush’s former deputy national security advisor for the Middle East Elliot Abrams.
The deal reached between the Bush Administration and the government of Prime Minister Sharon in 2004 was to permit construction of additional housing units inside the major blocks and other settlements, but not the construction of new settlements or the physical expansion of existing ones.
The current decision fits easily within those terms. The Obama Administration has never accepted that agreement between the United States and Israel, but I mention it to show that Israel’s reaction to the Palestinian UN initiative is hardly excessive or surprising.
In spite of this, Shragai wrote, Israel allowed the planning for construction on the site to stall during the 1990s, and with the exception of the construction of a police station and some basic infrastructure work, Israel had refrained from advancing the development process further since that time due to pressure from the US.
The site called E-1 (East 1) is an area immediately adjacent to Jerusalem to the east, which covers an area of 12,000 dunams of largely uninhabited and mostly state-owned land. It is within the municipal boundary of the Israeli city of Maale Adumim. The Israel Ministry of Housing, which devised the E-1 construction plan, sought to develop the area in order to link Maale Adumim and its 36,000 residents to Jerusalem.
Every Israeli prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin has supported the plan to create Israeli urban contiguity between Maale Adumim and Jerusalem. The centerpiece of the E-1 program involves the construction of 3,500 housing units, a commercial area, and a hotel zone.
The plan is a subject of bitter international controversy, with the Palestinians claiming that it would prevent sovereign Palestinian contiguity between the northern and southern areas of the West Bank. The United States has supported the Palestinian position and has sought to block Israeli construction at the site, pending a final peace agreement.
The Israeli interest, one that tends to be ignored by the international community, is to bring E-1 to fruition by establishing contiguity between Jerusalem in the west and Maale Adumim as well as the approaches to the Dead Sea in the east, as part of a security belt of Jewish Communities surrounding Israel’s capital. Without control of the E-1 area, Israel is apprehensive about a Palestinian belt of construction that will threaten Jerusalem from the east, block the city’s development eastward, and undermine Israel’s control of the Jerusalem-Jericho road. This major artery is of paramount strategic importance for Israel in order to transport troops and equipment eastward and northward via the Jordan Rift Valley in time of war, and this road is already subject to growing pressure from unchecked Palestinian building.
Shragai also pointed out that, far from blocking off north-south access between Ramallah and Bethlehem, the plan protects Palestinian access through the construction of Palestinian bypass roads.
Using Shragai’s logic, what pro-Palestinian activists have termed the “insurmountable obstacle” posed by Israeli construction in the E-1 zone would, in practice, be no more inconvenient for Palestinians commuting between east Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem than for Israelis living in Efrat that have been commuting to Jerusalem for years via the Bethlehem bypass road.
Which is to say, it would not be much of an inconvenience at all.
In fact, according to planners, travel times between these Palestinian population centres would actually decrease due to improved, multi-lane roads that avoid inner-city traffic. Shragai noted that, more than just a pie-in-the-sky plan, work on that Palestinian bypass road is ongoing, even while the Jewish neighbourhood has been on hold.
On October 24, 2007, Israel expropriated 1,102 dunams for the purpose of paving a “Texture of Life” road for Palestinian use. Most of the land expropriated was state land and only 225 dunams were private land. The road was intended to allow transportation contiguity from the Ramallah region north of Jerusalem to the Bethlehem region to the south.
One section of the road from the Hizma region, bypassing Anata from the east and continuing southward to the A-Zaim checkpoint, has already been paved, with Israel investing nearly NIS 300 million in its construction. The Palestinian road passes through a tunnel under the Jerusalem-Maale Adumim road. In this way, the Palestinians would enjoy transportation contiguity without cutting the link between Maale Adumim and Jerusalem. However, the final section of the road has not yet been paved, apparently due to budgetary considerations.
The controversy over Netanyahu’s announcement has ignited the blogosphere.
Commenting on the current settlement flap, Commentary‘s Jonathan Tobin identifies the problem at the heart of nearly unanimous international criticism of any Jewish construction over the Green Line – even in areas that Israel has been mooted to retain as part of all prior peace proposals.
The problem, he says, is that the international community has ignored entirely the legitimate Jewish claims to its ancient homeland – the difference between occupied land and disputed land.
For its pains, Israel has been subjected to even greater vituperation and delegitimization during this period than before. So long as it does not speak of its [land] rights, it will always be treated as a thief who must return stolen property rather than as a party to a conflict with its own justified claims.
In another blog post on the subject, Tobin slammed former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert for saying Netanyahu’s announcement on E-1 was a “slap in the face” to Obama.
The point here is not just that Olmert’s self-promotion is both deceptive and in bad taste. It is that his own vision of peace with the Palestinians would have left Israel in control of Maale Adumim and the E1 area that is supposedly so controversial that any Jewish building there is both an obstacle to peace and an insult to Obama. Had Abbas not sped away from the talks with Olmert and actually signed the deal he was offered, Israel would have had the right to build in these areas. That leaves us asking how Netanyahu’s decision to treat areas that would be held by Israel even after it surrendered both the Arab areas of Jerusalem and most of the West Bank would somehow prevent an accord.
Netanyahu, it should be repeated, has stressed that the announcement is only to advance the planning of construction in E-1, not to actually begin construction.
This delay before the bulldozers start moving is an indication that Israel is actually trying to build pressure in Ramallah for negotiations, blogged Walter Russell Mead on the American Interest website.
Construction would not start for a year or two. Israel apparently hopes that this deadline will push the Palestinians toward a serious negotiation and increase public support, at least in the West Bank, for a deal.
Offering insights into the perspective of many Israelis on the subject, a Jerusalem Post editorial on Sunday asserted that Israelis feel that they should not be condemned for building on land that has been consistently mentioned in negotiations to remain in Israel’s control in any two-state solution.
The decision to move ahead with building in areas that a broad majority of Israelis expect to be a part of any future Jewish state – even after a two-state solution is implemented – is perfectly in line with our country’s interests.
Even the decision to authorize zoning and planning for E1 follows in the footsteps of a long chain of governments – both left wing and right wing…
While the timing of our government’s announcement might result in negative diplomatic repercussions, building in Jerusalem and E1 protects integral Israeli interests recognized and protected by both left-wing and right-wing governments for well over a decade.