There have been two rounds of prisoner releases since the August 2013 resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Both were accompanied, as expected, with new settlement announcements (both with respect to East Jerusalem and the West Bank; this analysis is limited to East Jerusalem, but for the most part applies equally to the West Bank). In both cases, the magnitude of these announcements sparked immediate and serious concern in terms of impact on the ground, impact on the viability of the peace talks, and implications for the next round of prisoner releases. Now, with the benefit of more time and deeper analysis, it is possible to say a great deal more about the implications of these settlement announcements.
The 2011-2012 Surge: As we have comprehensively documented, 2011-2012 saw an unprecedented surge in East Jerusalem settlement and settlement-related activity. This activity reached a crescendo in the latter part of 2012, in the run-up to and the aftermath of the UNGA vote on Palestinian non-member status. Based on the location and scope of the settlement and settlement-related construction involved (including infrastructure designed to integrate East Jerusalem-area settlements into pre-1967 Israel while neutralizing the Palestinian presence in these areas), it was clear that these moves went beyond tactical parrying, and disclosed a strategic thrust towards the goal of creating an Israeli-defined “base-line border” between Israel and a future entity that might eventually be called a state of “Palestine.” This base-line border, as delineated by settlements and settlement-related infrastructure, is clearly incompatible with any reasonable interpretation of a two-state solution.
A Freeze During the First 7 Months of 2013: This surge ground to a halt in the first seven months of 2013. It appears to have done so for a number of reasons, including the Obama visit, and visits to Israel by Secretary of Defense Hagel and Secretary of State Kerry, in the context of determined U.S. efforts to jump-start negotiations. During this period there was an across-the-board, de facto (undeclared) settlement freeze in East Jerusalem: no new plans were deposited for public review, no hearings were held on pending plans, no statutory plans were approved, and no new tenders were published.
The “New Negotiations” Mega-Surge: Israeli-Palestinian talks resumed in mid-August, and the first tranche of prisoner releases took place days later. The second tranche took place at the end of October. Each tranche was accompanied by a flood of settlement-related announcements. These numbers represent a very large increase in approvals, even compared to the period of the 2011-2012 settlement surge. In total, over this three month period, the government of Israel approved construction or planning of 4,437 new units in East Jerusalem – publishing tenders for the construction of 2,015 and approving plans for an additional 2,422. The breakdown over the two tranches is as follows:
- First tranche: the Netanyahu Government published tenders for 790 units in East Jerusalem, and extended formal statutory approval to plans allowing for the construction of an additional 891 settler units.
- Second tranche: the Netanyahu Government published tenders for an additional 1,225 new settlement units, and granted statutory approval to plans allowing the construction of an additional 1,531 units.
Old Surge vs. New Surge – Comparing the Numbers: A comparison of the East Jerusalem settlement approvals numbers – between the 2011-2012 period and the start-of-new-negotiations period – highlights the extraordinary nature of the current surge:
· The number of settlement units for which tenders were published between August and November 2013 was 26.8% higher than the numbers of units tendered during all of 2012, when the previous settlement surge was at its peak.
· The average monthly number of settlement units tendered in East Jerusalem during this three month period is of a scope unprecedented at any point since the early 1970s, and perhaps since 1967.
· The number of new settlement units for which tenders were published between August and November 2013 was more than 64% of the total number of units tendered during all of first four years of Netanyahu’s previous tenure as Prime Minister (2009-2012), combined (1,488 during this period in 2013, compared to 2,318 for the entire previous four years).
· The number of units which received statutory approval during this period was 107% higher than the parallel number of units approved during all of 2012.
· For 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012, the average number of tenders for new units in East Jerusalem settlements was 48 per month, compared to an average per month of 496 for the period of August-November 2013 (a table illustrating this data is available here).
Settlement Related Projects: In addition to this unprecedented spike in tendering and approving of new East Jerusalem settlement units, this same three-month period saw the approval (in the context of the second tranche of prisoner releases) of three major settlement-related projects in East Jerusalem. Two of these are “national parks” of strategic significance in the attempt to unilaterally determine a base-line border between Israel and “Palestine.” The importance of the approval of these two plans should not be underestimated, even if it is not as immediately quantifiable as numbers of new settlement units.
· The Givati Parking Lot Plan (Plan 13542) was deposited for public review on or about November 1. The plan provides for the construction of a major multi-purpose structure on the site of the Givati Parking lot, across from the Old City’s Dung Gate and at the entrance to Wadi Hilweh/Silwan. The complex is an important component in the efforts to transform Wadi Hilweh/Silwan into a continuation of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and to turn an existing Palestinian neighborhood into a “renewed” Biblical City of David under the sway of the settlers, led by the Elad settler organization. Such a development poses a clear and present danger to the very possibility of the two-state solution according to the lines anticipated in the Clinton Parameters.
· The Mt. Scopus Slopes Plan (Plan 11092) seeks to use park development to create a physical link between the inner encirclement of the Old City (by means of settlements and settler-related public spaces) to the outer ring of the settlement blocs that encircle municipal Jerusalem. The plans consequently seeks to weld the visual basin of the Old City to the E-1/Maale Adumim area on East Jerusalem’s northeast flank, linking the area to West Jerusalem and cementing Israeli control over the E-1 area. In doing so, it would make the emergence of a Palestinian state with a viable, contiguous capital in East Jerusalem impossible.
· The Refaim National Park (Plan 12222) aspires to achieve on Jerusalem’s southern flank what the Mount Scopus Slopes plan would do on the northeastern flank, seamlessly integrating East Jerusalem and its West Bank environs into pre-1967 Israel.
A map showing all various projects that have been moved on during the new surge can be viewed/downloaded here.
Implications: Current East Jerusalem settlement trends bolster the impression that the Netanyahu government is working to unilaterally define a coherent “base-line border” between Israel and a future state of Palestine – a border that is incompatible with any reasonable interpretation of the two-state solution. Having suspended settlement activity in East Jerusalem during the first half of 2013, Netanyahu appears to now be using the cover of prisoner releases to make up for lost time and to continue “in installments” the settlement surge of 2011 and 2012, albeit at levels that significantly exceed those years.
Thesetrends pose a dilemma for the Palestinians. President Abbas appears genuinely committed to remaining in talks (if for no other reason than that he does not want to be blamed for their collapse). However, each new round of settlement announcements makes it harder for him to do so. With two additional rounds of prisoner releases on the horizon, serious concerns are in order about additional “installments” of settlement announcements, and the pressure they will put on President Abbas. The concerns are even more serious given that it appears that Netanyahu believes that, since he is releasing Palestinian prisoners, he has a license to expand settlements in East Jerusalem (and the West Bank) as he sees fit. His actions thus far go well beyond any reasonable interpretation of “self-restraint,” and well beyond what anyone could argue the domestic political calculus requires of him.