The East Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo is back in the news. Indeed, it is the very same expansion plan that landed Ramat Shlomo in the news in 2010 – Plan 11085 – that is once again making headlines (a map of the plan can be viewed/downloaded here).
In March 2010, as many will no doubt recall, Israeli official sources trumpeted the approval of plans for 1600 new units in Ramat Shlomo during a high-profile, goodwill visit to Israel by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. For full background on that debacle, see our report, here, as well as our piece in foreignpolicy.com, “Jerusalem, settlements, and the "everybody knows" fallacy,” which remains highly pertinent today.
Since that first crisis, Plan 11085 has bubbled up at various politically opportune (or inopportune, depending on one’s perspective) times. This included in August 2011, when Israel’s Minister of Interior announced (inaccurately) that the plan had been granted final approval. At that time, we characterized this announcement as “nothing short of a very public ‘F- You’ statement by the Netanyahu government, aimed at both the Obama Administration and the Palestinians.” We also noted that, “Back when this came up in March 2010, the Israeli Government gave assurances that the plan would be indefinitely ‘kicked down the road.’ However, when it comes to East Jerusalem settlements, ‘indefinite’ appears to be a very elastic term.”
Subsequently, in December 2012, Plan 11085 was granted (actual) final approval, in the context of a deluge of East Jerusalem settlement approvals. As of this writing, that final approval has not yet entered into effect. This is because the government has, thus far, refrained from formally publishing the approval (the last legally required step for the plan to come into effect).
What Happened on Sunday, August 25th
On Sunday, August 25th, 2013, the Jerusalem Municipality’s Finance Committee approved funding (62.4 million shekels , or around 17 million USD) to develop the infrastructure for Plan 11085 – that is, to break ground and lay the actual groundwork for construction that will nearly double the size of the existing settlement.
Specifically, the Committee approved an agreement under which the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israel Land Authority (an organ of the Government of Israel, under the authority of the Ministry of Housing) agreed that infrastructure for the 1500 new units in Ramot Shlomo (previously the project was approved for 1600 units, but certain modifications were made in the course of the approval process) will be built by the Moriah Municipal corporation at an overall cost of 236 million shekels, of which 25% will be funded from the Municipality's Irregular (Development) Budget. It appears that 20% of the remaining costs will be recovered by the development’s purchasers, with the rest funded by the government of Israel and municipal subsidies.
What Happens Now
Nothing happens now, at least not immediately. As noted above, Plan 11085 was approved by the Regional Committee in December 2012, but has not yet entered into effect. As a result, work cannot (legally) begin on anything related to the project, including infrastructure – notwithstanding the action taken by the Jerusalem Municipality’s finance committee on Sunday. And since Plan 11085 has not yet come into effect, it is unlikely that the budgetary allocation will be expended this year. However, it isn’t unusual for allocations under the Irregular Budget to be extended from year to year.
Why Now, and Why This Was News
Today, any development relating to settlement approvals in Jerusalem would likely make the news. Given the major settlement approvals announced in the run-up to the prisoner release, additional approvals are especially unwelcome and problematic, and feed a public narrative that this Israeli government’s intention is to exploit peace talks to undermine the two-state solution on the ground. Add to this the fact that this latest approval pertains to Ramat Shlomo and, not only that, to the very same Ramat Shlomo project that was the center of the 2010 crisis, and this latest announcement was all but guaranteed to generate headlines and cause serious consternation not only in Ramallah, but in Washington and in EU capitals.
As for the question of timing, the decision to approve funding for Ramat Shlomo (as well as the decision taken at the same meeting to fund Israeli projects in Silwan, discussed separately) is most likely linked to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's efforts to woo the Haredi vote – which he desperately needs if he is going to win the upcoming Jerusalem mayoral election. And it should be recalled that the Ramat Shlomo project will provide housing geared to be marketed exclusively to the Haredim. Moreover, these actions enable Barkat to flaunt his "I-will-build-in-spite-of Kerry-and-Obama” credentials for the benefit of his right-wing constituents (in an election where far right-wing elements are actively seeking to outflank him).
At the same time, this approval cannot be viewed strictly as a Jerusalem municipal matter. The plan would not and could not have been moved on without the support and/or pressure of the Israel Land Authority (ILA). The ILA, it should be recalled, is run by Bentzi Lieberman, the former head of Council of Settlements of Judea and Samaria (known as the Yesha Council), and is formally under the authority of the Ministry of Housing and Construction. Given the ILA’s involvement in Sunday’s decision, the move to push ahead with Ramat Shlomo should be understood at least in part as a declaration of intent, insofar as the ILA and the Ministry of Construction are concerned. And it should be assumed that to the extent that the ILA and the Ministry of Construction have authority in this matter, implementation of Plan 11085 is coming down the pike.
What Bibi Knew, and What He May Do Next
Did Netanyahu have knowledge of the Jerusalem Municipality’s plans to approve the Ramat Shlomo financing? Probably not, although it can't be entirely ruled out. But if he didn’t know, it is only because he has created ground rules that allow things like this to happen without his advance knowledge or consent. As we wrote back in March 2010, when the question of what Netanyahu knew was likewise being asked, “One would think that [given the various settlement fiascos that had already occurred] senior officials in the Prime Minister's office would by now have demanded that, as a matter of course, they review the agendas for the planning committees in advance. Failure to do so at this stage of the game can only be viewed as gross negligence or, worse yet, a deliberate policy of preferring not to know, so as to not be expected to act.”
It should be recalled that in the run-up to the recent prisoner release, Netanyahu let loose a flood of significant settlement announcements. Netanyahu was perhaps surprised by the vehemence of the international response to his announcements, and it seems reasonable to imagine that, assuming he has more planned approvals awaiting announcement, he will hold them until the run-up to the next prisoner release. That is, he won’t use his political ammunition until it makes sense for him to do so. In that context, it would make sense to expect that Netanyahu may move to “remedy” Plan 11085’s current “approved-by-not-legally-in-effect” status in the run-up to one of the coming rounds of prisoner releases.
Spoilers Are On the Move & the Credibility of Peace Efforts Is at Risk
In the interim until the next prisoner release, the field is wide open to the various spoilers and provocateurs, most prominently Housing Minister Uri Ariel and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and their fellow travelers on the right. They are complemented by those activists and journalists who may sometimes allow themselves to be spun by these same spoilers and provocateurs, such that they then hype non-events into manufactured crises. It may well be that the current fracas around Ramat Shlomo is an example of this dynamic, and a sign of what to expect in the coming period.
Had someone in the Prime Minister’s office picked up the phone on Sunday morning and called someone inside the Jerusalem Municipality, as they have no doubt had occasion to do numerous times in recent months, the Ramat Shlomo-related item could easily (and at little cost in terms of political capital) been taken off the agenda. Regrettably, that didn’t happen, and a (so far) minor crisis was born. Now that this approval had made headlines, it becomes another test of whether the U.S. and the international community can reassure the Palestinians that they will not permit peace talks to become nothing more than handy cover for Israel to get away with using settlements to undermine the two-state solution.