On September 1, the Walla news site published an article (in Hebrew only) which caused alarm bells to sound. According to the article, in the wake of the abduction and murder of the three Israeli teens last June, Netanyahu coordinated, by means of the Cabinet Secretary, Avihai Mendelblitt, the details of the of the Israeli response. The article reports that this response was to have included the publication of tenders for the construction of 2500 new units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including 1500 units in Givat Hamatos (the remaining units were reportedly in the West Bank, in Ariel, Beitar Illit and Immanuel).
These units are part of Town Plan 14250, which provides for the construction of 2610 units, all of which are on what Israel considers “State Land.” A map of the planned Givat Hamatos construction can be viewed/downloaded here. For our most recent report on the Givat Hamatos plan, see here; for our in-depth analysis of the devastating impact that implementation of the plan would have on the availability of the two-state outcome in Jerusalem, see our more in-depth presentation, here.
According to the article, Netanyahu pulled all of these tenders at the very last moment, for fear of the international response at this point in time. The precise date on which this purportedly took place was not disclosed.
The article reported that since the ceasefire in Gaza, the negotiations between Mendelblitt and the settlers have resumed. Settlers reportedly expressed concern over the "silent settlement freeze" that was put in place during the Gaza hostilities. Sources close to the Prime Minister were quoted as saying that the international atmosphere after Gaza is very delicate and volatile, and caution is needed, citing the response to the recent announcement of Israel’s declaration of a 4000 dunams of West Bank land as “State Land” – the largest such seizure in the past thirty years (for more, see this report from Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran. According to the article, senior right-wing cabinet members asserted that they “understood” the current sensitive situation, but if the freeze persisted, they would have to take action.
The article has the ring of truth, and should be treated as such. While it is clear that both the settlers and sources in the office of the Prime Minister leaked information to the reporter, it is not clear who was responsible for the initial leak. It may quite possibly have been the settlers, who want to force Netanyahu's hand; it might also be Netanyahu, seeking to deflect criticism over the “state land” announcement with a story that sends the message: “It's only because of me that things aren’t worse, so shut up."
Assuming this article is all or mostly accurate, the implications are dire indeed. It means that Netanyahu was a hair’s breadth away from implementing the doomsday settlement of Givat Hamatos earlier this month. It also means that implementation of Givat Hamatos could truly come at any time – all that needs to happen is for Netanyahu to wake up in a bad mood for a major crisis to ensue – one which could start badly and rapidly get worse. All necessary prior approvals for the plan have already been granted, meaning that the plan can go forward at any time (all that is left is to publish approval of the plan in two Israeli dailies and in the public record). It is customary for the tenders to be published after approval, but it is not required. In any event, the approval of the plan and the publication of the tenders can come at the same time or very close to each other (as happened last year with Ramat Shlomo).
A further note: Should Netanyahu go ahead with the plan, the Palestinians will almost certainly view it as sufficient cause – perhaps unavoidable cause – to go to the International Criminal Court. Should this occur, it is likely Netanyahu would respond with his “second-strike” capability – that is, by proceeding with E-1. Viewed in this context, it should be clear why implementation of Givat Hamatos would be so devastating.
The Givat Hamatos plan is akin to the gun placed on the table in the first act of a play – a gun everyone knows will be used to shoot someone before the final curtain. Today, we are well into the last act of that play; with the news about Givat Hamatos, we now have the clearest possible indication that Netanyahu may indeed plan to shoot that gun before the curtain falls.
Givat Hamatos is located between the East Jerusalem settlement neighborhood of Gilo and the West Bank city of Bethlehem. If plans to build a settlement at the site are implemented, it will be the first new Israeli settlement neighborhood since construction commenced at Har Homa in the late 1990s.
Moreover, if Givat Hamatos is built, it will result – for the first time since 1967 – in a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem being completely surrounded by Israeli construction. This has dire implications for the possibility of any peace agreement. Namely: It will make the Clinton Parameters – or principles like them – impossible to implement in East Jerusalem. It is still possible today to implement an agreement based on the principle that Arab neighborhoods of the city will fall under Palestinian sovereignty, and Jewish neighborhoods under Israel sovereignty. If Givat Hamatos is built, it will no longer be possible to implement an agreement along these lines without the relocation of tens of thousands of Israelis.
In short, Givat Hamatos is not just another detrimental settlement; it is a game-changer. While it is a smaller project, its implications are no less problematic than those of E-1 – something very much recognized by the Palestinians. The key difference is this: while global opposition has been rallied against E-1, far less attention and opposition has been devoted to Givat Hamatos.
For these reasons, anyone who is concerned about keeping the two-state solution alive in Jerusalem should take the threat posed by this recent report about Givat Hamatos extremely seriously. The time to “wait and see” or entertain Israeli official excuses about this plan is long past. Arguments that “it is just a plan” or “it is years from implementation” should never be taken seriously, least of all with respect to a plan that is literally on the verge of implementation. Likewise, arguments that this plan is non-controversial deserve to be ridiculed.