Today’s announcement that the Israeli government is moving full steam ahead with the construction of nearly 1300 new settlement units should surprise nobody. The announcement paves the way for construction in Pisgat Zeev and Ramot (settlement neighborhoods of East Jerusalem), as well as in the huge and extremely controversial settlement of Ariel—a settlement located smack-dab in the middle of the northern West Bank, in a location that makes its inclusion as part of Israel under any realistic borders scenario pretty much impossible.
Today’s announcement is no surprise for two reasons. First, because starting about 2 weeks ago it became clear that Prime Minister Netanyahu was opening the settlement floodgates, particularly in East Jerusalem. In addition to today’s announcement, we’ve seen approvals of plans in Gilo, Har Homa, East Talpiot, and the Mount of Olives—and more approvals are clearly on the way. Today’s announcement is just part of that flood.
The other reason this is no surprise is that Netanyahu has plenty of reasons, foreign and domestic, for doing this now. In terms of domestic politics, early elections are only a short time away, and Netanyahu and his right-wing allies are eager to burnish their credentials with the settlers and their supporters—just in time for Likud party primaries (scheduled for November 25). Moreover, today’s announcement serves as a stinging riposte to President Abbas’s interview this past Friday—a pro-peace overture that, from Netanyahu’s point of view, was extraordinarily unwelcome.
On the international front, Netanyahu is no doubt counting on the fact that during an election season—especially one in which pro-Israel credentials have been such a hotly-contested issued—the Obama administration isn’t going to waste an ounce of political capital condemning his actions on settlements, no matter how outrageous they might be.
In addition, it is worth remembering that Netanyahu has a long and storied history of politically-timed settlement announcements during President Obama’s time in office. These include (but are not limited to):
- the September 27, 2011 approval of construction in Gilo, at a time when the Obama Administration was working feverishly to re-start negotiations;
- the May 19, 2011 announcement of action to approve 1500 new settlement units in East Jerusalem, coinciding with Netanyahu’s trip to Washington to meet with President Obama (and on the eve of President Obama’s major Middle East speech);
- the April 3, 2011 announcement of the approval of new settlement construction East Jerusalem and the West Bank, coinciding with Israeli President Shimon Peres’ visit to Washington to meet with President Obama;
- the announcement November 2010 of the opening of the settlement floodgates in East Jerusalem, coinciding with Netanyahu's meeting with Vice President Biden in New Orleans;
- the infamous March 2010 announcement of plans for massive construction in the East Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo, coinciding with Vice President Biden's visit to Jerusalem;
- the March 2010 announcement of the issuance of permits to begin settlement construction at the Shepherds Hotel in East Jerusalem, coinciding with Netanyahu's meeting with President Obama;
- the November 2009 announcement of plans for massive new construction in Gilo, coinciding with Special Envoy Mitchell's meeting with Netanyahu's envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, in London;
- the March 2009 announcement of plans to demolish 80 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, coinciding with Secretary of State Clinton's March 2009 visit to Jerusalem.
Clearly, Netanyahu’s latest settlement announcement is par for the course. Settlements and related issues—does anyone remember the Hasmonean Tunnel crisis?—have long been Netanyahu’s tried-and-true weapons when he wants to score political points with his target constituencies and thumb his nose at everybody else.
All of that being said, nobody should dare dismiss what is happening today as just more of the same boring settlement news that they can just ignore. The current scope, pace, and intensity of settlement activity in East Jerusalem is unparalleled since the earliest days of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. As Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann has warned, if these settlements trends continue, the two-state solution in Jerusalem as it is currently understood – wherein a relatively clean line can be drawn between Israeli Jerusalem and Palestinian Jerusalem, and land swaps can ensure that large numbers of Israelis are not forced to move—will be gone by the end 2013, if not sooner. And let no one misunderstand: there is not two-state solution without two capitals in Jerusalem.
Today Netanyahu continues to give lip service to his desire for negotiations and Israeli-Palestinian peace. His actions on settlements—over the past weeks, months, and years—reveal a much different agenda, and send a clear message to that it is the Palestinians, not Israel, who are missing a partner for peace.