The past week saw a spate of terrorist attacks, both in the West Bank and inside Israel. Rather than responding with an announcement of any policies actually geared to stopping/preventing further violence, the Netanyahu government – predictably – exploited the attacks to announce new settlement approvals, both for the West Bank and East Jerusalem. All of this coincides with the release of the long-awaited Quartet Report – a report that while notably tepid in its criticism of Israeli settlement policy was also clear in its call on Israel to cease new settlement announcements/construction.

Below we examine the announcements as they apply to the Jerusalem area only.

What Was Announced

On July 3, at the conclusion of the weekly cabinet meeting, the Government announced the “approval” of plans for the construction of 800 new housing units in East Jerusalem and on its periphery, comprising: 560 new units in Maale Adumim (on Jerusalem’s periphery); 140 homes in Ramot; and 100 units in Har Homa. The government also announced the “construction” of 600 new units in Beit Safafa, the Palestinian part of Givat Hamatos.

Why have we placed quotation marks around the words “approval” and “construction” in the paragraphs above? Because for now, at least, these announcements are mostly more about smoke and mirrors than actual concrete actions (except for the 169 units detailed below, the “approvals” of which were transformed from hypothetical to actual in the days after the announcements) – there being both more and less to each announcement than meets the eye.

When announced on July 3, neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor any of the he relevant authorities were able to identify the location or the details of the “approved” plans. As has happened on occasion in the past, this was not only because they didn’t know at the time, but because no such plans had been actually put in play. It was only a few days later that detailed plans were published for 169 out of the 800 new units announced on July 3. Of these plans, only one was really new, and the others allow only for construction of additional units in existing construction – plans that would not have received attention had they not been highly touted by the Prime Minister.

These 169 units are comprised of three plans that have now been deposited for public review, a step approaching statutory approval of these plans. The first two of these plans allow for 120 units in Ramot (Plan 103753, on Mirsky Street) and 30 units in Pisgat Zeev, (Plan 143768, on Elyahu Meridor street), both of which pertain to adding new floors on previously authorized buildings, the tenders for which were already published and awarded. Only the approval of a 6-story building with 19 units in Har Homa (Plan 202481, on Elyahu Koren street is entirely new and is, indeed, the kind of plan that would have normally received attention. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Pisgat Zeev was not listed as one of the settlements for which new construction was approved under the July 3 announcement; to understand why these highly irregular developments likely occurred, see our analysis below.

Click here for a map showing the location of the announced Beit Safafa “construction” as well as showing the location of the 169 approved units in Har Homa, Ramot and Pisgat Zeev. Note that we cannot show the location of the remaining 631 “approved” new construction, since that information is unknown and may not exist).

What These Plans Are Actually About

To understand what is going on, it helps to consider these two approvals in reverse order.

  • The 600 new units in Beit Safafa

Last week, following a legal battle largely ignored by (or unknown to) the media, the government of Israel informed the Jerusalem District Court that it would approve the construction of 600 units in Beit Safafa provided for under the Givat Hamatos settlement plan. This decision – the substance and timing of which were driven not by terrorism or politics but by the bureaucratic process within the Israeli courts – is the “approval” that is now the focus of Israeli politicians and the media.

How and why did this come about? As may be recalled, the Givat Hamatos plan involves construction of a major new settlement in East Jerusalem, akin to the other large government-planned, government-backed settlements that ring East Jerusalem. As may also be recalled, the Givat Hamatos plan provides for some new construction in the adjacent Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa – but beware false symmetry. The claim made by defenders of the Givat Hamatos settlement plan – i.e., that the planned “construction” in Beit Safafa proves the plan serves the needs of both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis – are misleading and disingenuous in the extreme.

  • The construction of Givat Hamatos is (a) planned, sponsored and implemented by the Government on “state land” or land privately owned by Israelis, and includes government-constructed massive associated infrastructure work; (b) involves a very large number of units (with the overwhelming majority of the 4500 units provided for under the plan to be built for Israeli Jews); and (c) given the strong Government support, can take place in short order.
  • The “construction” of units in Beit Safafa: (a) enjoys no Government involvement, let alone support – it merely involves authorization for Palestinians landowners to build, at their own expense and with the responsibility for the development of associated infrastructure placed entirely on the Palestinian landowners, rather than on the Government; (b) is much smaller in scope; and (c) given that that onus for construction and associated infrastructure falls entirely on the Palestinians private sector, is unlikely to take place in the foreseeable future.
  • All that being said, the most significant distinction between the imminent settlement construction of Givat Hamatos and the more remote construction in Beit Safafa lies in the intent and impact behind the plans. Construction in Beit Safafa – i.e., allowing East Jerusalem Palestinians to develop their own lands – is a basic obligation that Israel owes to these residents both under international and domestic law. Construction of Givat Hamatos means the establishment of a new, illegal settlement neighborhood in East Jerusalem – the first settlement of this kind established in East Jerusalem since Har Homa was established in the 1990s – transparently geared to thwart a political agreement in Jerusalem and, more broadly, to thwart a two-state outcome.

But there’s one more difference between the settlement plans and the plans for Beit Safafa: as the planning for the new Jewish construction under the Givat Hamatos plans were promoted and even expedited by the Government, the far more limited plans to allow construction in Beit Safafa mysteriously hit a wall. This led Beit Safafa landowners to eventually take the matter to the courts, where the State told the court that the Beit Safafa plan had been frozen due to a secret decision by senior policymakers. While the residents moved that the plan be approved, the State even refused to disclose the reasons why this had not happened.

Subsequently, on May 24, 2016, the Jerusalem District Court issued a ruling rejecting the State’s refusal to disclose the reason for suspending the implementation of the Beit Safafa part of the Givat Hamatos plan. In response, the State last week told to Court that the 600 units will be approved, making further Court interventions unnecessary (for more on this saga, see here). Which brings us to where things are today.

  • The 800 new settlement units

It is very likely that, even if there had been no spate of terror attacks, Netanyahu would have felt a need to “balance out” the court-driven Beit Safafa approval (discussed above). The announced “approval” of new units in Maale Adumim, Ramot, and Har Homa should be understood in this political context.

What can be said specifically about the announced plans? First, aside from the plans for 169 units published on July 5 (which include planning for another settlement, Pisgat Zeev), as of this writing, no new tenders have been issued and no information has been published about the precise location of the planned units. As a result, it is unknown as-yet what these announcements are actually about. Second, there are three possible explanations for all of these announced “approvals”:

  • They may represent a recycling or routine revision of old plans – plans already approved but not implemented, or plans already in the approval pipeline.
  • They may be brand-new plans that have yet to be formally introduced into the approval process.
  • They may be announcements backed by no actual plans – i.e., announcements reflecting a purely political motivation and arbitrary numbers, backed by no actual concrete planning.

The third option – an announcement disconnected from any actual planning – is the most likely. Announcing settlement approvals, and then only after the fact fleshing out plans to match those announcements, is a well-established modus operandi of Netanyahu. The fact that the plans deposited for public review two days after the Cabinet announcement included units for a settlement not mentioned in the original announcement (Pisgat Zeev) bolster this analysis.

Likewise, as reported by Channel 10 evening news on the evening of July 4, the bodies that are most involved in settlement planning and approvals – the Municipality of Jerusalem, the planning administration, and the Israel Lands Authority – had no knowledge of these plans and were themselves surprised by the announcement (in contradiction to the Prime Minister’s office claim that these plans were currently drawn at the planning administration under the Minister of Finance). Moreover, the specific numbers of units announced for the various settlements do not match those listed in any of the (numerous) plans already in the pipeline of the Jerusalem Planning Committee or in previously approved plans.

Concerns/Observations

The 800 “approved” units: More information is needed about all of these plans, but even in the absence of more details, some observations are in order:

  • Not Just Words: Nobody should be complacent or take comfort in the fact that these “announcements” are for the most part (so far) likely not linked to actual, operational schemes. Netanyahu invariably follows up such “stunts” with clear orders to the relevant authorities: find places to turn my rhetoric into facts on the ground. Even if Netanyahu pulled the locations for construction and the numbers of new units out of thin air, this construction will happen, and sooner rather than later. This has indeed commenced, in the form of the plans deposited for public review in the days since the Prime Minister’s July 3 announcement.
  • Choice of These Settlements Is not Accidental: Even if the details of these schemes are mostly not yet operational, the choice of Maale Adumim, Ramot, and Har Homa is not accidental. Each of these settlements – Ramot to the north, Maale Adumim to the east, and Har Homa to the south – play a critical role in expanding the “Jerusalem envelope” to encompass huge swathes of the surrounding West Bank, and in creating a solid, populated barrier cutting off East Jerusalem from the West Bank (consistent with the goal of using settlements for Spatial Shaping – see detailed analysis here). The announcement of further expansion in these settlements – even if it not yet clear how Netanyahu plans to implement it – is a clear declaration of intent, and intent that is being made real on a daily basis.
  • Never Enough for the Settlers: In response to the announcements, settler leaders and supporters are upping the ante, demanding more. MK Yoav Kisch (Likud) and Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home), and their “Eretz-Israel” Knesset lobby, have launched a campaign, in cooperation with the Maale Adumim municipality calling for Israel to formally annex that settlement, and are moving forward with legislation to make that happen (more here; note that this initiative first popped up in May of this year – see more here). Also in response to the announcements, Netanyahu’s political rivals are scoring even more points against him. Most notably, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat condemned the announcements, stating: “It is a mistake to approve construction in Jerusalem only after a terror attack…We need to build in Jerusalem always.”
  • Keeping All Eyes on Givat Hamatos: The July 5 publication of details for 169 of the units “approved” on July 3 – consisting mainly of expansion of existing construction (new floors, etc.), including in a settlement not included in the original announcement – highlights the fact that there is not a lot left to build inside East Jerusalem settlements. This fact raises even more serious concerns about where Netanyahu will turn to next inside East Jerusalem, given that the only major project pending there is Givat Hamatos (the implications of the construction of which are discussed below).

The Beit Safafa plan: While the approval of the Beit Safafa plan is in no way as significant as its opponents claim, it is nonetheless a positive development with regard to the needs of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and should be welcomed as such. Like other Palestinian neighborhoods, Beit Safafa has for decades struggled under an Israeli system that denies the population planning or permits for new construction, even as East Jerusalem settlements have been established and grown without cease. However, the decision to link the new settlement “approvals” with the Beit Safafa plan is deeply troubling, and may well be the most dangerous part of Netanyahu’s announcements. Indeed, the Beit Safafa approval is being used primarily to make the implementation of Givat Hamatos far more likely.

  • By invoking the approval for Beit Safafa (a decision made prior to these announcements) Netanyahu knew he was inviting pressure from his own cabinet and his political base to publish the tenders for the construction of the 1500 units in Givat Hamatos.
  • As soon as the announcement was made, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin called instead for construction of the Jewish settlement of Givat Hamatos, stating, “you can’t approve construction for Arabs in Givat Hamatos without also developing construction for Jews in the same neighborhood” – despite the fact that this has been the core of Israeli policy in East Jerusalem since 1967.
  • Education Minister immediately Naftali Bennett slammed the approvals, suggesting that the approvals would lead to division of Jerusalem and calling instead for construction of Givat Hamatos (to prevent any such division and secure a “united” Jerusalem cut off from the West Bank). Bennett went on to state: “I’m sure that’s what the prime minister will approve and that he will not help establish a Palestinian bridgehead in the heart of Jerusalem.”
  • More worrisome and unusual is the fact that Netanyahu is also being pressured from the center-right, as Kulanu’s leader and Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon also criticized the Prime Minister and accused him of de facto freezing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

As we have noted in the past, 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. Unlike E-1, which requires additional planning that will take many months, no such trip-wire exists for Givat Hamatos. The tenders for the construction of the first 1,500 units can be published as early as tomorrow morning – and the circumstances now orchestrated by Netanyahu make this eventuality significantly more likely. For background on Givat Hamatos and the threat it poses to a two-state solution, see here, here, here and here.

Comment & Recommendations

This latest announcement of new settlement “approvals” in East Jerusalem is for the most part – at least thus far – political posturing for domestic purposes. Nonetheless, the announcement is important both for its political and security implications, and for the concrete impacts that will eventually materialize:

  • At a time when tensions in East Jerusalem remain high and the possibility for renewed violence is acute, announcing new settlement plans is akin to pouring gasoline on a fire. With this announcement, Netanyahu is prioritizing political gains with the settlers and their supporters over security, exploiting terror attacks to promote policies that are designed to deprive Israel of a two-state future and cosign Israelis to permanent, bloody conflict.
  • Coming on the heels of the newly released Quartet Report, which rather mildly called on Israel to “cease the policy of settlement construction and expansion,” this announcement is a blatant and gratuitous act of defiance. The Quartet Report addressed the dangerous implications of settlement expansion in a precise and detailed manner, without drama. The fact that this mild report sparked such an in-your-face response is worrying, indicating the type of policies that Netanyahu intends to implement, i.e., policies to advance settlement construction and expansion at all costs. Indeed, Netanyahu has left no room for misinterpretation: in his response to the report he stated: “It is troubling that the Quartet appears to have adopted the position that the presence of Jews living in the West Bank somehow prevents reaching a two-state solution. The presence of nearly 1.8 million Arabs in Israel isn’t a barrier to peace; it is a testament to our pluralism and commitment to equality.” Netanyahu’s response to the chorus of harsh condemnations of this new round of announcements has been no less defiant.
  • Netanyahu has further empowered the forces pushing for construction of Givat Hamatos and made it more likely that he will soon authorize the publication of the tenders.. He has created the mood for increased domestic pressure which will justify construction.

The harsh international responses to these “announcements” are very much in order (see reactions from: UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the EU, U.S. Department of State). Notably, the State Department qualified Israel’s plans as part of “a systematic process of land seizures, settlement expansions, and legalizations of outposts that is fundamentally undermining the prospects for a two-state solution.This is exactly the type of public response that announcements like this must elicit, backed by even more pointed, private responses. This is also the time to for friends of Israel to send a clear and unequivocal message to Israeli official interlocutors: do not dare move forward with construction on Givat Hamatos.