Is Netanyahu Displaying Restraint? The Cases of Khan al Ahmar, Givat Hamatos and E-1

In the run-up to April’s national elections, we speculated that Netanyahu might approve or implement one or more of three highly contentious schemes which he had refrained from approving in the past: the evacuation of Khan al Ahmar, the publications of tenders for construction at Givat Hamatos, and moving towards the statutory approval of E-1. These suspicions did not materialize. However, we now have evidence that while the schemes are certainly being seriously contemplated, Netanyahu has decided to temporarily defer the implementation of at least two of these schemes: Khan al Ahmar and Givat Hamatos. These developments are noteworthy, and can possibly teach us something on the current dynamics of settlement and settlement-related activities on the ground, and the potential impact of international engagement on these issues. 1.  Khan Al Ahmar: evacuation and demolition postponed (in all likelihood) until December On June 17,the High Court of Justice held deliberations on the petition filed by the right wing organization Regavim, to require that the government show cause why the evacuation and demolition of Khan El Ahmar has not been carried out yet. The State moved that the court defer its response until December 16, by which time there should be clear results of the upcoming September 17 elections and the next government will likely have been formed. Why the postponement? The state’s filing has led to speculation as to what is behind the postponement. There is a sole press report citing that the reason for the delay is due to a US administration’s demand that the evacuation will not take place before it presents its “peace” plan. They purportedly made the claim that a highly controversial move would deter Arab states from supporting the Trump initiative at a particularly sensitive time. We are in no position to determine the veracity of this report. On the one hand, the rationale of the supposed US’ demand could make sense. On the other hand, Netanyahu has refrained from evacuating Khan El Ahmar long before the US initiative appeared imminent. In addition, this administration has refrained from any adversarial engagement with Israel regarding its West Bank policies (born out by Jason Greenblatt’s recent statements that Israel has done nothing to deserve criticism by his team). Regardless, the US’ request, to the extent that it exists, is clearly not the sole consideration. The very stark warnings from the EU and key member states have clearly also impact the calculation of the Prime Minister, who was unequivocally cautioned  by the EU and key member states that the evacuation and demolition of Khan El Ahmar would cross a significant red line and have very negative repercussions. The Regavim suit should dispel any residual doubt about what is behind the planned evacuation of Khan El Ahmar. Regavim’s operations director Yakhin Zik was quoted by the Jerusalem Post as saying that “the issue is much larger than the specific case. Khan al-Ahmar is also a test of the Israeli government’s readiness to take action against the Palestinian Authority’s plan to seize control over the open spaces of Judea and Samaria.” This confirms that the evacuation has little to do with the purported reason (lack of statutory planning) and everything to do with the strategic goal of neutralizing the Palestinian presence in  Area C, paving the way for Israeli annexation. It should be noted that the State’s request (now granted by the Supreme Court) to defer filing a response to the Regavim suit is only an indication of intent. The State is still at liberty to carry out the evacuation and the demolition at any time. It does not appear likely that this will be carried out by a transition government, but the possibility of this taking place prior to the upcoming elections still exists. 2.  Settlement Construction in East Jerusalem: Everything but Givat Hamatos In an interview to the right wing media outlet Makor Rishon on June 2, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon made a revealing comment, asserting that “I do not know of any problem today in building beyond the Green Line, except for Givat Hamatos, all the construction plans have a green light for implementation. We start and actually build everywhere – in Gilo, in Armon Hanatsiv, in Homat Shmuel [Har Homa] and in the whole city.” (TJ’s translation). Three conclusions can be drawn from this comment:
  • Givat Hamatos continues to be on hold for the time being;
  • It would appear likely, but not certain, that the same self-restraint that applies to Givat Hamatos and Khan El Ahmar would by all logic apply to E1;
  • Leon’s statement appears to imply that in the months preceding the last elections, there were indeed restraints regarding the publication of new tenders for  East Jerusalem settlement expansion. This is born out by the statistics. However, all of these limitations (to the extent they existed) have now been removed, with the sole exception of Givat Hamatos. This may explain the publication of new tenders in Pisgat Zeev and Ramot (see below).
We will briefly elaborate on each of these points.
  • Givat Hamatos on hold
The Moshe Leon interview gives us conclusive evidence that Netanyahu is continuing to bar  the publication of tenders. There can be little doubt that his position has been strongly influenced by the persistent, articulate and resolute engagement on this issue by key EU member states. It is a clear indication that at some level, Netanyahu is well aware that the axiomatic support of the Trump administration is simply not enough, and that the concerns of Europe can only be ignored at Israel’s peril. Given the overall dire circumstances in which we find ourselves in relation to settlement expansion, it is important to bear in mind that European engagement can at times be not only consequential but decisive (at least temporarily).
  • Khan al Ahmar, Givat Hamatos, E-1: a common denominator?
The cases of Khan al Ahmar, Givat Hamatos and E-1 share the fact that they are widely perceived in the international community has having non-routine and potentially devastating impact. Even though Netanyahu supports the implementation of all three, he has to date refrained from moving forward on them. Will this apparent restraint survive the upcoming tumultuous period of the election campaign and the formation of a new government? The answer to this question is unclear, and it would be a grave error to assume that Netanyahu will continue to exhibit restraint on these matters. Two different types of calculation are in play here:
  • During the election campaign: if, in the run-up to elections, Netanyahu fears that he is losing his base to the parties to the right of the Likud, he may feel compelled to consolidate his support  by giving the green light to one or more bold settlement moves. In such an eventuality, Netanyahu may move on Khan al Ahmar prior to the elections. That said, Netanyahu does not currently seem prone to take action on Khan al Ahmar, Givat Hamatos and E-1, and as we will now see, he may indeed have very compelling  reasons to act on these schemes – but only after the elections.
  • Post elections:If, after the approaching election results come in, Netanyahu will be asked by the President to form a government, he will use all the cards in his deck to achieve one overriding objective: securing his immunity from prosecution. We believe it likely that in the coalition negotiations, Netanyahu will attempt to “trade” the implementation of Givat Hamatos, E-1 and/or Khan al Ahmar in exchange for legislation granting him immunity from criminal prosecution. It is less likely he will “waste” these moves on anything less – including the possibility of approving these during the election campaign.
Consequently, the prospects for the approval of the evacuation of Khan al Ahmar, of tenders in Givat Hamatos and the statutory planning of E-1 will most likely depend on the results of the September 17 legislative elections.
  • Publication of tenders for 805 units in Pisgat Zeev and Ramot
On May 30, Israel Land Authority published tenders for the construction of 460 units in Pisgat Ze’ev and 345 units in Ramot. These are the first new East Jerusalem tenders published in over a year. The Tenders
  • The tenders for the construction of 460 units in Pisgat Zeev relates to Town Plan 330498 (210 units) and Town Plan 317149 (250 units), both of which were part of the 958 units in East Jerusalem approved by the Jerusalem Regional Planning Committee on July 4, 2017. As we notedat the time, these plans are initiated by the Ministry of Construction and Housing and are located on lands expropriated in 1980. In addition, a tender was published for a commercial site (Town Plan 11647).
  • In addition, the Israel Land Authority published tenders for the construction of 345 units in Ramot. These tenders relate to Town Plan 483354 (263 units in high-rise buildings) approved in July 17th, 2017 and to Town Plan 6576 (82 units), located on the western flank of Ramot in the area dubbed the Ramot Country Club. The tenders published also included a commercial site, related to the same Town Plan.
Implications While it is possible that during the latter half of 2018 and the first half of 2019 Netanyahu held back on new tenders, the publication of these tenders come as no surprise. Once schemes like these receive statutory approval, the publication of tenders is a foregone conclusion. All of the new units are to be built within the existing footprint of the settlement neighborhoods of Ramot and Pisgat Zeev. That, added to a cumulative fatigue in the international community regarding Israeli settlement expansion, led to a rather muted response.  To demonstrate just how problematic this desensitization to settlement construction is, it is worth noting that the number of units to be built in the framework of the tenders published on May 30 are 33% larger than all of the residential units built for Palestinians with any kind of governmental support since 1967, the last of which were in the mid-1970s. In light of all this, it is worth noting that the EUFrance, the UK, and Jordan indeed issued public statements condemning Israel’s decision. Does this portend an upcoming surge in settlement expansion?  Only partially. As we explained in detail in previous editions, we will not likely be witnessing large numbers of tenders in the large settlement neighborhoods of East Jerusalem for the simple reason that the construction potential in these areas has been largely exhausted. The center of gravity of settlement activity in East Jerusalem has shifted to accelerate the development of the biblically motivated settlement enclaves in and around the Old City and settlement activity in the settlement enclaves in Sheikh Jarrah and in the visual basin of the Old City, namely Silwan (both Wadi Hilweh/City of David and Batan al Hawa/the Yemenite Quarter). Furthermore, settlement expansion will likely proceed apace in the environs of Jerusalem in the West Bank. Finally, as we noted many times in the past, the  tenders for the construction of the first 1,000-1,500 units in Givat Hamatos can be published at any time. For a detailed overview of the pending and likely plans for settlement activity in and immediately around East Jerusalem, see our analysis dating from the beginning of the Trump administration here.