Following Thursday’s U.N. vote granting non-member state observer status to Palestine, Netanyahu’s security cabinet voted to advance plans to build in the area between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim known as E1, which would cordon off East Jerusalem from the West Bank, making a future contiguous Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital impossible. This would probably deal a fatal blow to the two-state solution given that borders and Jerusalem are two of the four final status issues that must be negotiated. But despite Israel’s attention-garnering announcement, the proposed neighborhood of Mevaseret Adumim will not be built in E1.
This is not the first time that Israel has made plans to build a new settlement in E1. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin first designated E1 as part of Ma’ale Adumim in 1994, and despite this designation there has never been any residential construction in E1. During Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister he did not build in E1, and both Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert explicitly promised the Bush administration not to construct any new settlements there. Netanyahu launched his election campaign in September 2005 from an E1 hilltop, and yet he promised President Obama in 2009 that he would not build there either. Despite constructing access roads around E1 and situating a police station there, not one residential foundation has been laid since Rabin set it aside for new homes. The cabinet decision on Friday was also not an order to build, but a start to the process of zoning and planning, which is likely to play out interminably.
The reason for this is that building homes in E1 has been a longstanding red line for both the United States and the European Union, and that line won’t dissipate just because the Palestinian Authority decided to defy Israeli and American wishes against pursuing a statehood claim at the U.N. The U.S. response to the E1 announcement was unambiguous, labeling it counterproductive and a threat to the two-state solution, and pointing out that settlement building in E1 makes direct negotiations harder, which is a not-so-subtle reminder that this is the exact charge Israel has leveled at the Palestinians over the U.N. strategy. The response from Europe has unsurprisingly been much tougher. Great Britain and France are debating whether to recall their ambassadors, and Germany has indicated that it would join the two countries in lesser moves such as suspending strategic dialogue meetings with Israel or labeling goods made in the West Bank.
The fury in Europe at the Israeli announcement does not come out of the blue. Netanyahu’s settlement policy has greatly angered European countries and led to the Czech Republic being the only country in Europe to vote against the Palestinian statehood bid. Netanyahu has announced plans to travel to Germany to express his displeasure with Germany’s abstention, but he is likely to get a tongue lashing from Angela Merkel in return. Netanyahu has long miscalculated the depths of anti-settlement feelings in European capitals, but if he has been willfully blind to it so far, the EU’s wrath over E1 is going to make a see-no-evil-hear-no-evil policy impossible to maintain.
The U.N. vote came as a surprise to Jerusalem, and Netanyahu knows that actually sending construction crews and cement mixers into E1 will worsen Israel’s image problem. I also imagine that there have been some extremely unpleasant conversations with White House and State Department officials this past weekend given that the E1 announcement came on the heels of unwavering American support over Gaza and at the U.N. As dedicated as Netanyahu has been to the settlement project, even he must now realize that building Mevaseret Adumim is a bridge too far.
So why even make the announcement about planning and zoning if the building phase is never going to arrive? Following the embarrassingly lopsided U.N. vote and the criticism from his right that he did not go far enough during Operation Pillar of Cloud, Netanyahu needed to make a big gesture before the January 22 election to demonstrate that he is committed to settlements and that he will not take the PA’s new statehood status in stride. E1 is an enormous deal to the settler wing of Likud, and declaring a new planning and zoning stage is red meat to Israeli right-wing partisans in a variety of camps, whether they be pro-settlements or have a religious or nationalist attachment to an eternal undivided Jerusalem.
The fact that this—just like the Levy Report—is an announcement that will never be acted upon does not negate the fact that it is good politics for Netanyahu. He is going to perform a delicate balancing act, in which he doubles down on settlements for a domestic audience while assuring the U.S. and the EU that E1 will remain a barren tract of land.
European states in particular have been hammering Israel on settlements for years, and following the universal support from the U.S. and Europe during the Gaza operation, including EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton—who has been highly critical of Israel in the past—blaming Hamas for instigating the fighting in Gaza, the timing of this announcement was particularly tone deaf. Israel cannot keep on ignoring Western entreaties to stop expanding settlements and then bemoan Western support for the PA’s statehood strategy, as if the two are not completely intertwined. Israeli settlement expansion is a real obstacle to a two-state solution, yet while settlements may be expanding across the territory that Palestinians claim for their future state, E1 is one place that will remain empty.