Israel's Response To PA Bid For Statehood New Building Projects
By Dovid Hoffman
Returning to the West Bank last week, after his recognition triumph at the UN General Assembly in New York, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas deliriously vowed that, “One day, a young Palestinian will raise the Palestinian flag over Jerusalem.” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had already taken action to nip the idea in the bud.
On Friday, in response to the Palestinian’s successful bid for enhanced status at the UN, Israel’s inner cabinet of nine senior ministers announced a raft of new building plans for East Yerushalayim and the West Bank, over the objections of Oslo peace process advocates who still claim that such construction reduce chances for achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The cabinet’s actions were twofold: approval of 3,000 new housing units that had been planned for East Yerushalayim and the West Bank, and an order to begin zoning and planning for the development of a 4.6 square mile bloc of land known as E1 that sits along the #1 highway that runs between Yerushalayim from Maaleh Adumim, the largest town in the West Bank.
The United Nations, European Union, and Russia, as well as the United States, have always opposed any Israeli construction across the pre-1967 armistice line, refusing to realize that the Israeli claim to the West Bank and Yerushalayim is at least as good, under international law, as the Palestinians, who never actually controlled that territory as a sovereign state. Israel has always argued that the only way to settle the competing claims is through negotiations, which is what the Oslo accords were supposed to set up. But instead, over the years, the international community has sought to impose the pre-1967 border lines on Israel, while unilaterally awarding the entire West Bank and Yerushalayim to the Palestinians, despite the weakness of their claim.
Opponents to new Israeli settlement construction ignore the fact that it is not prohibited by the Oslo accords, and that the same accords say that the final borders must be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians. Similarly, the accords do not seek to determine the status of Yerushalayim, and leaves that, too, to be determined by negotiations in the final stage of the peace process.
It is the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who have willfully violated both the letter and the spirit of the Oslo accords by refusing to negotiate with Israel for the past several years, and then seeking to claim by fiat that which they have been unwilling to negotiate for in good faith. The real obstacle to progress in the peace process has been the willingness of the US and the international community to let the Arabs get away with this conduct and to reward the Palestinians by granting their claims to the land without consideration for Israel’s rights to them.
In addition, in reaction to last week’s UN action, Israel decided not to transfer about $100 million in tax funds it normally transfers to the PA each month. Instead, the money will defray part of the $209.7 million debt that the Palestinians owe the Israeli Electric Corporation. One senior Palestinian official regarded this act as “piracy and theft,” even though he could not deny that the electric company was owed the money.
A STRATEGIC ASSET
The E1 region, which separates Yerushalayim from Maaleh Adumim, has always been considered strategically important. The Palestinians have always coveted E1 as part of a path which would connect the Arab cities on the West Bank to East Yerushalayim. The Arabs also argue that allowing Israel to develop the E1 site would further separate Arabs living in Ramallah in the north from the Arabs living in Bethlehem in the south. However, a glance at a map shows that even without control of E-1, it is possible to draw a Palestinian state with a contiguous border connecting Ramallah, Yerushalayim and Bethlehem by including the 9-mile-wide area east of Maaleh Adumim and west of the Jordan River.
Ever since Maaleh Adumim was founded in 1991, construction along the 4.5 mile long E1 corridor would allow for the natural expansion of Yerushalayim to the east and Maaleh Adumim to the west, until the two meet in the middle. By the same token, granting the E1 corridor would isolate Maaleh Adumim from the rest of Israel, while cutting off the eastward growth of Yerushalayim.
Also, building in E1 would provide much needed new source of housing for Yerushalayim. Many young Jews are leaving the city due to lack of affordable places to live.
Due to the security considerations, the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin appended the E1 area to Maaleh Adumim in 1994 and first proposed the idea of building it up. In 1996, Israel approved a plan to build 3,910 new housing units in the area in addition to a police station, 2,192 hotel rooms and an industrial park. Because much of the E1 area consists of steep inclines and deep ravines that are not suitable for construction, 75% of the area was slated to become a giant park. Once completed, E1, Maaleh Adumim and its satellite communities would create a Jewish bloc reaching all the way from Yerushalayim to within 9 miles of the Dead Sea.
Because the United States has opposed the E-1 plan since its inception, Israel has only taken preliminary steps to bring it to reality. Nonetheless, Israeli politicians have long used the place as a photo site, , speaking much about development but doing little or nothing due to the strong objections of Presidents Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and others.
In 2003, the Housing Ministry began carving out a road to the site and preparing the ground for construction until the U.S. ordered a halt to the activity. In 2005, Ariel Sharon stoked up international furor when he told a Knesset committee that he intended to resurrect the project, in an obvious effort to shore up his right wing credentials at the same time he was in the process of evicting Jews from Gaza. He backed down after strong objections from the U.S. when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice informed the Senate Foreign Relations committee: “We have told the Israelis in no uncertain terms that [settlement in the E1 area] would contravene American policy.”
In 2005, Netanyahu launched a campaign to become prime minister from an E1 hilltop declaring, “This is Jerusalem, it’s our capital. Nobody can tell us to freeze building in our capital. What we need to do is to break this siege by building here.” Ehud Olmert also used E1 building as an election plank, promising to start building 3,500 apartments there within four years if he was elected.
“It’s entirely clear that the continuity between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim will be a built-up continuity,” he said at the time. “In my view, there is an absolute consensus in Israel on this issue.” But stepping down from the premiership in 2009 gave him a convenient escape hatch from his commitment.
Despite the lack of much building in E1, Israel has created facts on the ground. In 2008, Israel constructed a multi-storied police headquarters in the area, ostensibly to crack down on illegal Palestinian building in the area but more likely as a symbol of possession. Israel also invested millions of dollars building a road from north to south through E1 as an answer to Palestinian objections that E1 would cut off Ramallah in the north of E1 from Bethlehem in the south. This unused highway has a high wall in the middle that may one day divide Palestinian motorists using it to travel from Ramallah to Bethlehem without checkpoints from Israelis using it to reach Maaleh Adumim or Yerushalayim. Israel has also made attempts to remove the Bedouin living in the area and tear down local Palestinian’s homes.
Palestinians and Israelis regard E1 as key to their competing aspirations for Yerushalayim. If the current attempt to resuscitate the E1 project prevails it may be a death knell to the peace process and leave Israel in control of a united, secure Yerushalayim. If it fails, Yerushalayim may end up surrounded by hostile Arab neighborhoods on three sides as it was before the Six Day War.
IS YERUSHALAYIM LEGAL
Besides bringing the E1 project back to life, Israel also announced the approval of 3,000 new housing units in East Yerushalayim and the West Bank. This is part of recent plans for the biggest enlargement of housing in Yerushalayim since the 70s. In addition, Israel issued tenders for 2,366 new housing units in Yerushalayim during the past year, more than the total number of units built there in the past three years. Late in November, Israel wanted to grant the final approval to build 2,610 units in Givat Matos, a new neighborhood south of Yerushalayim that is planned to have 4,000 homes and 1,000 hotel rooms. The approval was scuttled because of international pressure.
Why are these new buildings important to Israel?
Between 1948 and 1967, west Jerusalem spread over 25 square miles and had a population of 200,000 residents. Jordanian Jerusalem was about 2.5 square miles. Seventeen days after the end of the 1967 war, Israel made a dramatic decision to absorb East Jerusalem’s municipal borders. In addition, Israel added the entire area around East Jerusalem in all directions — 23 square miles-- including twenty-eight Arab villages.
In 1980, Israel passed a basic law (chok yesod) that Yerushalayim is the capital of Israel in its united, indivisible borders. The international community never recognized this annexation and considers the over 200,000 Jewish residents of Yerushalayim’s new neighborhoods as West Bank settlers.
Ever since 1967, a fight has been raging between Jew and Arab to create a contiguous Yerushalayim from north to south. Since the borders were changed in 1967, 30% of the land of East Jerusalem was expropriated in which nearly 200,000 Israelis presently live. In the north, the Jews built Neveh Yaakov, Pisgat Ze’ev, and Ramat Eshkol extending towards the city center, and to the south they built Giloh and the Har Chomah neighborhood.
The Arabs of Yerushalayim who numbered 70,000 in 1967 and have now increased to over 300,000 have also built a territorial continuum, much of it during the past ten or fifteen years, by building thousands of apartments, most of them without permits. These are in neighborhoods such as Al Bira, Kalandia, Kar Akeb, Aram, Beit Chanina, Shuafat, and the Old City. From the east, a sea of concrete buildings flows all the way from the city of Ramallah to Yerushalayim.
The Arab goal is to strangle Jewish Yerushalayim. Even if the Arabs would allowYerushalayim to retain its Jewish neighborhoods in the event of a peace agreement, inevitably, a war of attrition would erupt along the border with sniper fire, mortars, missiles. Fences wouldn’t help. In 1949 when Jordanian snipers shot at Yerushalayim, the area adjacent to the frontier emptied out.
Rightist Israelis regard it as vital to stop the largely illegal Arab expansion by expanding Jewish neighborhoods in Yerushalayim. This is what lies behind the Yerushalayim’s controversial expansion plans.
A SUPRISING GAMBIT
Netanyahu’s sanction of massive building in Yerushalayim and E1 came as a surprise. It is true that in recent weeks Israel was considering whether to respond to the General Assembly’s recognition of a de facto Palestinian state by annulling the Oslo Accords, annexing large settlement blocs, or collecting huge taxes owed by the P.A. But Washington had explicitly warned Israel not to respond with construction in the E1 region.
Also, Israeli officials had given the impression there would not be severe retaliations unless the Palestinians hauled Israelis before the International Criminal Court of the Hague. In addition, in recent days Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had said there would be “no automatic response.”
A senior Israeli government official noted that Netanyahu’s unexpected move probably went a long way to destroying any rapport he may have built up with Obama during Operation Pillar of Defense and during the U.N. vote.
“A number of important countries are telling us that they think it’s wrong to do settlements, and these [countries] are our best friends,” he said. “After they say this directly or indirectly, the immediate response is to build more settlements, even in one of the most controversial areas,E1? How does that make sense? What is the message the government is sending to its best friends?”
World condemnation of Netanyahu’s gambit was swift. The Obama administration quickly condemned the move as unhelpful.
“We reiterate our longstanding opposition to settlements and East Jerusalem construction and announcements,” said a spokesman for the National Security Council. “We believe these actions are counterproductive and make it harder to resume direct negotiations or achieve a two-state solution.”
EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Sunday that all settlement construction is illegal under international law and constitutes an obstacle to peace, while PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas denounced the decision and demanded a halt to the Jewish construction.
“I’ve said a thousand times that we want to resume negotiations and we are ready to do it,” he said. “We are not setting any condition (sic) but there are at least 15 UN resolutions which consider settlement activity as illegal and an obstacle to peace which must be removed.”
In Israel too, Netanyahu’s gambit did not go unchallenged.
“There is no question about Israel’s right to build,” the Labor party said in response to his move. “But at this time, following the difficult decision yesterday at the United Nations – it would be more desirable to lower the flames and try to achieve sober and responsible dialogue. Announcements of this kind do not promote anything and ultimately could harm the legitimate interests of Israel.”
On Sunday, Netanyahu brushed off all complaints saying, “ Today we are building and we will continue to build in Yerushalayim and in all the places that are on the map of Israel’s strategic interests.”
“This is additional proof that this is not a dispute over land but a denial of the existence of the Israel,” he added in reference to Palestinian maps that make no mention of Israel. “Their unwillingness to accept a Jewish state in any borders whatsoever is the root of the conflict. When there is a map that shows Palestine over the entire area of Israel, there is a conflict here over the very existence of Israel. The Palestinian Authority is unwilling to come around to accepting the existence of the State of Israel. It is poisoning the Palestinian public. So long as the Palestinian Authority educates the younger generation to hate, how is it at all possible to talk peace?”
On the same occasion, Vice Prime Minister Moshe (Bogie) Yaalon made the astounding revelation that in essence, the Cabinet had adopted the Levy Report that considers Israel as having a legal right to build and settle in the West Bank.
On Monday the international complaints continued. Britain, France, Denmark, Spain and Sweden summoned their Israeli ambassadors to hear their deep disapproval, Germany urged Israel to stop expanding settlements, and Russia said it viewed the news with serious concern.
On Tuesday, Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Finland and Egypt also delivered the same message to their Israeli ambassadors.
Germany and the Netherlands, which abstained in last week’s UN vote, said that they could not continue to support Israel’s position in this manner if it began construction in the E-1 corridor.
There were also threats that Britain and France would take further, unspecified action against Israel if it insisted on going forward with its new settlement construction plans.
BRAVADO OR SERIOUS INTENT
It remains to be seen what will result from Israel’s announcement. Is all this talk represents short lived bravado or a serious intent to actually build?
It should be kept in mind that construction of new housing in Yerushalayim and developing E1 angers the United States and plays into the hands of Palestinian extremists. The Camp David Agreement allowed Jews to remain where they were living at the time of that agreement. But a peace agreement may force Israel to have to exchange a lot of Israeli land in the Galilee to keep the new neighborhoods across the Green Line.
On the other hand, building new neighborhoods will secure the unity of Yerushalayim and developing E1 will enable Yerushalayim to stretch eastwards instead of being strangled by Arab developments in the east, besides saving the 40,000 Jews of Maaleh Adumim from living on an island in an Arab sea.
One way or another, Bibi’s announcement last Friday certainly helps him gain the hearts and minds of much of the Israeli public in time for the upcoming elections.