On October 26, the office of the Prime Minister announced its intention to expedite the construction of 1060 new settlement units in East Jerusalem, the construction of 2000 new settlement units in the West Bank, and the implementation of various settlement-related infrastructure projects, from bypass roads to the renovation of the Ibrahami Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron (see here, for example). For details/analysis of the West Bank elements of the announcements, please refer to Peace Now. The analysis below deals only with the East Jerusalem elements of the story.
A number of factors appear to be in play. Foremost among them is a domestic political dynamic fueled by Naftali Bennett and Uri Ariel publicly accusing Netanyahu of silently imposing a settlement freeze. While settlement activity continues on the ground in both East Jerusalem and the West Bank (in the context of existing approved projects and private initiatives), their accusation nonetheless has at its core a kernel of truth: since the breakdown of peace talks last summer, there has been notably little action to promote/approve new settlement projects.
Netanyahu's recent defiant pronouncements regarding new settlement activity should be understood largely in light of this pressure from Barkat and Ariel. The fact that the pronouncements also place the Obama Administration in a difficult position, coming only a week before mid-term elections, is probably less a contributing factor than a fortuitous (and welcome) coincidence from the standpoint of Netanyahu – not to mention Sheldon Adelson.
Where will the new units be? It appears that this announcement involves the resurrection of two plans that were initiated years ago, and abandoned because they were both so problematic with respect to planning considerations. Both of these plans are particularly detrimental to potential permanent status borders in the future. They are:
- Plan 11094, for the expansion of Ramat Shlomo. It would add an additional 660 units to the existing neighborhood (this is not the same as Plan 11085, for 1600 units, announced some years back during the visit to Jerusalem of Vice President Biden). Plan 11094 would extend Ramat Shlomo to the north and east of the existing built-up area of the settlement, virtually welding the settlement to the adjacent Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat. This is highly detrimental to the two-state solution because any future permanent status agreement will require a border between Ramat Shlomo and Shuafat; welding the former to the latter will turn them into “Siamese twins,” between which the delineation of a border will be extremely difficult.
In addition to both being so detrimental to the achievement of a two-state solution, Plans 11094 and 13308 have a great deal in common. Both were initiated in the second half of the 2000s. Both were rejected for various reasons as unworthy of approval (since the deliberations ere behind closed doors, the precise reasons are not known). Both are in their embryonic stages. Both pertain to construction outside the expropriation lines of their respective adjacent neighborhoods, Har Homa and Ramat Shlomo. Consequently, a significant part of each plan is on private land, not state land which will complicate and prolong the planning process. The final approval of both plans is likely years away. And in both cases, given the complicated land ownership issues involved, final approval is not a foregone conclusion.
- Plan 13308, for the expansion of Har Homa. This plan has been dubbed "Har Homa West," or “Bethlehem Gate” and is located in the open spaces to the west of Har Homa and to the east of the Hebron road, several hundred meters north of the Jerusalem-Bethlehem (300) checkpoint. This plan is particularly detrimental to the two-state solution because, together with Givat Hamatos, the Har Homa West plan will be the very last seal between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem (creating a buffer from Mordot Gilo in the west to the eastern edges of Har Homa C), thereby preventing a Palestinian state from having a viable, contiguous capital in East Jerusalem.
There is no room for complacency, notwithstanding the above. There have been many occasions when plans such as these proceeded far more rapidly than would normally be anticipated – and plans that not long ago were talked about as "years away" are today established settlement neighborhoods.
Why now? The reason Netanyahu has chosen this course of action is transparent. He is attempting to tell Naftali Bennett: "See, I am expanding settlements." At the same time he is hoping to convince the international community that “these are just plans” (and old ones at that) – just as he assured the international community that the Ramat Shlomo plan announced during the Biden visit was “just a plan.” Take note: groundbreaking on the latter Ramat Shlomo plan (referred to be many, somewhat ironically, as the Biden Plan) is expected in the weeks/months to come.
What next? There has been no word yet regarding formal movement on the Har Homa plan. On the other hand, Plan 11094, the new Ramat Shlomo plan, came before the Regional Planning Committee on Nov. 3 – a fact that was reported in the Israeli media and, coming in the context of the ongoing Jerusalem violence, did not go unnoticed. Notably, the Israel media reported that the committee members were convened for an "emergency session" – indicating that what we are seeing is an effort by the Netanyahu government to expedite this plan. Plan 11094 was brought before this same committee in the past, but back on June 11, 2008, it was rejected over non-political planning considerations. No action has been taken on the plan since that time.
The purpose of the Nov. 3 was to examine whether the Plan fulfills the necessary technical requirements to be deposited for public review. Given that the plan was rejected on its merits five years ago, under normal circumstances this new hearing would signal the beginning of a lengthy planning process (to address the problems that killed the plan six years ago). However, the haste with which the Committee was convened already indicated that Prime Minister's office had given instructions to fast-track Plan 11094. Thus, while normally it would be inconceivable that the Committee would decide at this early stage to deposit the plan for public review (a major step towards implementation), in this case the inconceivable is not only eminently possible, but actually came to pass: following the meeting Israeli media broke the news that the Jerusalem Regional Planning Board approved Plan 11094 -- for the construction of 500 new settlement units (reduced from the proposed 660) -- for public review. Clearly, this plan is being fast-tracked at a feverish pace, with all the regular planning standards apparently being ignored.
It is noteworthy that the lands dealt with under Plan 11094 are beyond the 1970 expropriation line in the area. This means that most of the lands in question are privately owned. Nonetheless, the body that sponsored and submitted the Plan is the Ministry of Construction. This means that while today the Government of Israel can stop the planning process at whim, as the plan proceeds the private sector interests involved will become more dominant, and stopping implementation of the Plan will become far more difficult.
What is the impact of the announcement with respect to the Palestinians? Tensions and nightly violence in Jerusalem have reached levels unseen for many years. The response of the Netanyahu government to this rising crisis in the eternal-undivided-indivisible capital of its state has been two-pronged: threatening to escalate security measures to break the will of the rioters, and threatening to build more settlements. In another context (and in the absence of a peace process to undermine/destabilize), settlement announcements such as these have not had a terribly inflammatory effect on the ground. In the current context, they are tantamount to pouring gasoline on an open fire. With these announcements (and the seemingly non-stop stream of provocative/defiant statements that Netanyahu as followed them up with), Netanyahu is sending a clear message that the Palestinians of East Jerusalem cannot miss: “This city is ours. You don’t count. And expect the pressure on you and your existence in this city to get worse."
What is the impact of the announcement with respect to the international community? These latest settlement announcements did not occur in a vacuum. Rather, they come on the heels of the game-changing approval of Givat Hamatos and the unusually harsh response of the international community to that approval. In the face of this response, and subsequent developments like the UK parliament's vote to recognize Palestine, Netanyahu has not only remained unrepentant, he has become defiant. He has rejected the pleas of his closest allies to roll back Givat Hamatos, and has now gone forward with this new round of settlement announcements – and a new round of rejecting international objections to the plans, dismissing U.S. criticisms as "disconnected from reality." One can only imagine how Jordan's leaders feel, with these latest settlement announcements coming only hours after they stated that settlement expansion jeopardizes the peace agreement between Jordan and Israel (and, notably, the Jordanian reaction to the new announcements was to request that the UN Security Council convene in an emergency meeting to discuss the issue of Israeli settlement activity in Jerusalem). All in all, Netanyahu appears confident that he will come out on top in this round of diplomatic arm-wrestling, just as he has done in past rounds.
The Bottom Line: These are perilous times. This Middle East is wracked with instability and fraught with dangers. The peace process is moribund. The Temple Mount is boiling over. The two-state solution is in danger as never before. East Jerusalem is in flames nightly. Netanyahu’s response to all this came in the form of these latest announcements, in which he "gave the middle finger" not only to East Jerusalemites and their Palestinian brethren, but also to Israel’s closest allies – confident that there will be no serious consequences. Absent a response that is stronger than routine denunciations and expressions of disapproval – a response that compels Netanyahu to back off – have no doubt that there will be much more to come (a prime candidate for the next settler provocation in Jerusalem: the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva in the Post Office building opposite Herod’s Gate. The yeshiva is not yet operational, although there have been a number of ceremonies formally “opening it”. A highly visible, “in your face” ceremony/takeover/commencement of studies is likely in the coming days or weeks.)
The EU's comment on the new announcement that "the future development of relations between the EU and Israel will depend on [Israel's] engagement towards a lasting peace based on a two-state solution" hints at such an approach. However, by now the EU and other friends of Israel should understand that for Netanyahu, hints that are not backed up by credible threats of concrete consequences are something to be brushed off, or better still, something to be exploited for political gain, allowing him to position himself, over and over, as having beaten back international pressure on Israel and each time coming out the winner.