East Jerusalem at the Beginning of 2015: Things to Watch

During the last quarter of 2014, a constellation of factors combined to make the outlook for a stable Jerusalem and for the two-state solution extremely perilous. East Jerusalem erupted in violent protests on a nightly basis, with Palestinian terror spilling over into West Jerusalem and Israeli vigilantism against the Palestinians a daily event. Netanyahu gave the green light for the final approval of the construction of the new and game-changing Givat Hamatos settlement neighborhood. Events in and around the Temple Mount seemed to be inexorably escalating towards a violent clash.

Since the beginning of 2015, a number of modest, but significant developments may indicate a pulling back from the brink – at least for now.

  • Violence in JerusalemThe scope and intensity of violence throughout East Jerusalem has significantly declined in recent weeks, perhaps indicating that this current round of violence has spent itself. But that violence has hardly disappeared. Assaults against Israelis continue and Palestinians – Egged bus drivers, cabbies, visitors to West Jerusalem – are abused daily and at times assaulted.  If a month ago East Jerusalem was in flames, today it is smoldering – and could erupt again at any moment.
  • Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif: While the details of the arrangements hammered out by King Abdallah, Secretary Kerry and Prime Minister Netanyahu at their November 13, 2014 meeting have not been made public, these arrangements have clearly had a salutary effect. Tensions have notably declined. Jewish visitors are being allowed to visit the Mount in modest numbers and in groups no larger than five. The Mount has been kept open for Muslim worshipers, regardless of age. The most persistent provocateurs, like MKs Moshe Feiglin and Miri Regev, have refrained from visits to the Mount – something that cannot be accidental, even if the reasons for them refraining from such visits is not known. As with the Jerusalem violence, this relative calm is deceptive and can be short-lived. Recent and ongoing developments – like the recent arrest of an American who had stockpiled explosives with which to blow up the mosques, the closing of Islamic associations focusing on protection of the mosques, and the continued campaign to allow for Jewish prayer on the Mount – all demonstrate how volatile the situation remains.
  • East Jerusalem Settlements: in the past, Netanyahu’s responses to Palestinian moves in the international arena have invariably involved punitive actions regarding settlements, particularly in East Jerusalem. This time around, however, the Prime Minister’s Office leaked that Israel’s response to the Palestinians signing the Rome Statute would be harsh (and in suspending the transfer of tax revenues, indeed it was), but would not involve settlements. There most plausible explanation for this decision is that Netanyahu took seriously warnings from friends in the international community, and possibly from within his own intelligence and security agencies, about the likely dire consequences new settlement actions would have for Israel. He may also have recognized that going the settlement route could have cost him during the ongoing electoral campaign, with opponents able to argue that Netanyahu had lost the moral high ground and further compromised relations with Washington and Israel’s European allies by needlessly shifting focus away from the Palestinians’ “unilateral” strategy to Israel’s settlement policy. In this regard, Netanyahu is not weighing Israel’s international interests against his own domestic political interests as much as he is weighing the potential benefits of settlement expansion with his ideological base against the electoral damage he would sustain as a result of an international firestorm that would likely result from such an expansion.

These are all encouraging and noteworthy developments. However, it would be dangerous for anyone to allow these developments to lull them into complacency: the situation in Jerusalem remains extremely volatile. None of the underlying causes destabilizing Jerusalem has disappeared. None of the threats to the two-state solution in Jerusalem have been significantly mitigated, much less removed. The absence of any anticipated political horizon itself makes matters all the more dangerous: it is no accident that the second Intifada broke out after the collapse of the Camp David talks, and that the Jerusalem violence erupted after the failure of the Kerry initiative. And in the absence of a prospect for any political forward movement, the Palestinian moves in the international arena will likely intensify, increasingly the likelihood of Israeli retaliation in Jerusalem.

When you add to this already problematic mix the upcoming March 17 Israeli elections, it becomes even more likely that there will be a significant, non-routine event in Jerusalem in the coming months. These impending elections – with their months-long pre-election ritual of campaign pandering and electioneering – on their own would be cause for concern. It is not an exaggeration to say that in every recent election campaign, politicians of various stripes, and most particularly Netanyahu, have sought to burnish their Zionist credentials by exploiting Jerusalem – accusing opponents of (gasp) being ready to divide the city, and competing amongst themselves to see who can stake out the hardest line position in the city.

In this fraught and high-stakes political context, and even in light of Netanyahu’s recent “self-restraint, it remains eminently possible, and perhaps likely, that Netanyahu will take concrete steps in and around Jerusalem that are dangerous if not fatal to the two-state solution. Indeed, it is likely that with the breakdown of talks and the Palestinians’ resort to the UN and ICC, Netanyahu sees himself as absolved of any undertakings he may have made to hold off on the projects discussed below, or even implicit understandings to show restraint.

For that reason, it is critical, now, to focus on those projects, all of which are subject to Netanyahu’s direct control, that are both the most damaging and potentially inflammatory, and on which – some or all of them – Netanyahu is most likely to move in the near term. Of course, no list of potentially damaging and de-stabilizing act regarding East Jerusalem and West Bank settlements can be exhaustive. But Netanyahu knows precisely what constitutes “bad behavior” – and the combination of his domestic electoral calculus and the Palestinian moves in the international arena will make it very tempting for Netanyahu to initiate some of these.

Projects/Plans of Immediate and Urgent Concern in and around Jerusalem

1. E-1

The E-1 project pertains to an area 12.5 sq. km. in size, located between Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem.   It involves two plans – Plans 420/4/7 and 420/4/10 – which together entail the construction of approximately 3500 new units. Implementation of the project is widely recognized as fatal to the two-state solution, as it would so dismember any potential Palestinian state that it, alone, would undermine the viability of such a state.

Netanyahu already has a history with E-1. Despite having previously undertaken not to act on E-1, on November 30, 2012 – one day after the UN General Assembly approved non-member state status for the Palestinians – Netanyahu went ahead and ordered that the plans be deposited for public review (one of the last steps before final approval). Days later, the West Bank Regional Planning Committee approved the deposit; however, the legally mandated publication of the plans never took place – leaving the plan once again frozen, but a step closer to implementation  (for more details see our in depth analysis). This de facto freezing of the plans would not have occurred except at Netanyahu’s direction.

In the current political context, it is conceivable that Netanyahu will decide to move ahead with E-1. He can do this simply by instructing the relevant authorities to go ahead with publication of the plans. Should this occur, there will be a period of around 4-6 months during which the final bureaucratic requirements are completed (including the 60-day public review period, during which objections against the plan may be filed, and possible reconvening of the Planning Committee to ratify the previous approval, given that two years have passed since the original approval – both of which involve public hearings), after which final approval can be issued and construction tenders published. In addition, there is the possibility that Netanyahu could give the green light for additional infrastructure for the project to go ahead right away, separate from the plans’ approval process (though most infrastructure has already been completed).

Politically, E-1 is something of double-edged sword for Netanyahu. He will no doubt be tempted to go ahead with the project – to pander to his electorate, to promote his own Greater Israel ideology, and as revenge for Abbas’ moves at the UN and ICC. At the same time, he is well aware that E-1, more than any other settlement project in East Jerusalem or the West Bank, is a red line for the international community – a red line that he will pay a cost for crossing. Should he decide to go the route of un-freezing E-1, he will thus doubtless try to convince the world that nothing has happened for which he should be accountable: that unfreezing the project is technical step that is outside his control, or that, like he claimed about Ramat Shlomo approval back when U.S. Vice President Biden visited, unfreezing the project is just a bureaucratic step in a long process that is won’t have any impact on the ground for a long time.

These excuses are as empty as they are worn-out and familiar. The bottom line is this: Any forward movement on E-1 will be highly inflammatory.

2. Givat Hamatos

Givat Hamatos is a new settlement on the southern flank of East Jerusalem, near the border with Bethlehem. Construction of Givat Hamatos (Town Plan 14295) would be a major game-changer: for the first time since 1967, it would result in Israeli built-up areas completely surrounding an East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood (Beit Safafa). Most importantly, this would prevent the implementation of the Clinton parameters (or anything like them) in Jerusalem, which are the sine qua non of any permanent status agreement. For more details on Plan 14295, see our in depth analysis.

Netanyahu has already defied, repeatedly, the U.S. and international community on Givat Hamatos, to the point where construction of this new settlement is truly imminent. Under Netanyahu, this plan – which was dead in the water for years – has proceeded to the point where on November 16, 2014, all of the statutory planning was completed, when the approval of the plan was published in the public record.   This means that tenders may be issued at any time, and leaks from the Prime Minister’s office have indicated that tenders for the construction of 1500 (out of a total 2610 units) are ready for publication. In addition, the plan encompasses privately owned lands that will allow for the construction of several hundred units, for which no tenders will be required. Technically, building permits for these units could be issued by the Jerusalem Municipality at any time, but there are so many preconditions that such issuance will not take place without the active support of both Government of Israel and the Municipality fast-tracking the permits. Both the publication of tenders and the issuance of building permits would be, for all intents and purposes, an irreversible move, and make the construction of Givat Hamatos virtually a fait accompli.

Politically, Givat Hamatos is also a double-edged sword for Netanyahu – an easy tool to use to pander to his base, but one which would mean rapid changes on the ground, for which he would have a very difficult time disclaiming responsibility. Indeed, there is no realistic scenario in which Netanyahu could convince the world that Givat Hamatos is not another Har Homa – a new settlement established on his watch, under his authority, for the express purpose of undermining the two-state solution. Netanyahu has the authority and leverage to prevent this project going forward; should it go forward, full responsibility and accountability lie with Netanyahu.

3. IDF Military Colleges on the Mount of Olives

As far back as Netanyahu’s first term in office in 1996, he has been promoting a plan to transfer the IDF Military Colleges from Herzliyah to the ridge of the Mt. of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City (Plan 51870). The plan for the construction of the IDF Military Colleges was deposited for public review in October 2012. Hearings to examine objections to the plan were scheduled for March 2013, but were taken off the plan was removed from the hearing agenda due, it appears, to President Obama’s visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah. No further action has been taken to date.

The plan is viewed by many as particularly inflammatory: the Churches see it as a violation of the character of the Mt. of Olives; foreign militaries and many in the IDF see this as something that will unnecessarily make engaging the IDF problematic in new and superfluous ways; and the Palestinians rankle at the creation of such a blatant symbol of Israeli political/military control over such a central and sensitive site in East Jerusalem. For additional background, see our in-depth analysis.

4.   Nahla/Givat Eitam (aka “E-2”)

The Nahla plan (dubbed “E-2” by its opponents, Givat Eitam by the settlers) has yet to achieve the notoriety of E-1 and Givat Hamatos, but absent very firm and resolute engagement, that is not likely to remain the case for very long.   The plan deals with an area located east of Efrat and the southeast of Bethlehem. The area is being planned for approximately 2500 new settlement units, the initial 840 of which will be at the site of an “agricultural farm” approved by Barak in 2011. Until recently, the Nahla plan was being held up by legal proceedings regarding the declaration of the area in question as “state land.” The “agricultural farm” is already a modest precursor of the scheme. The legality the declarations regarding a sufficient portion of these lands has now been upheld, so that the formal statutory planning process is likely to proceed in the near future.

If implemented, this project would be hugely problematic for the two-state solution. It would significantly prejudge the border between Israel and Palestine. It would contribute to the urban suffocation of Bethlehem, preventing one of the few remaining areas in which Bethlehem can develop. And, in conjunction with other existing and planned settlements, it would dismember the southern West Bank in a manner similar to the way E-1 would divide the northern and southern halves of the West Bank (hence the name “E-2”).  For more details, see the in-depth analysis by Peace Now, Kerem Navot, and Combatants for Peace.

The Nahla plan still in its early planning stages; however, its potential impact is so consequential that any forward movement on it will be viewed by the Palestinians and the bulk of the international community – correctly – as highly provocative and potentially inflammatory.

5. Freeze vs. Thaw in East Jerusalem

Since the October 1, 2014 publication of the statutory of approval of Givat Hamatos, Netanyahu has, in the context of East Jerusalem, allowed no additional plans to be deposited for public review, no deliberations on existing plans, no new approvals, and no issuance of tenders.  (The scenario in the West Bank is similar, but not identical: there is no settlement freeze in the West Bank, since construction of large numbers of settlement units proceeds apace even now, given previous approvals and tenders and given the large number that can proceed without tenders). In this context, two conclusions are clear: (1) new settlement-related actions anywhere in East Jerusalem – approvals, hearings, tenders – will be both inflammatory and provocative; and (2) responsibility for any thaw in this de facto freeze – any new plans deposited for public review, any new statutory deliberations on existing or new plans, any new approvals and any new tenders – falls firmly on Netanyahu, who has demonstrated that he can keep a lid on East Jerusalem settlement actions when he wishes.