'Vital Interests'

A Bogus Defense Of E1 Construction

Ali Gharib on the advocacy group the Israel Project's defense of Israeli plans to build up a strongly-contested area outside Jerusalem.

Few of Israel's even most staunch Stateside advocates have ventured to defend the announcement of 3,000 new settlement homes in the territory known as E1, just East of Jerusalem. Instead, the commentary has basically been, 'It's not that bad.' But as of last night there was one notable exception: the Israel Project, a group whose mission is to provide facts to media and the public. The D.C.-based organization put out a release about the Israeli plans.

The Israel Project's novel defense of building civilian settlements in E1, however, has many a pitfall. It hinges on the counter-intuitive—and misleading—notion that not building up E1 would cut off the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim from Israel proper:

The concerns over contiguity have been held up in particular as almost exactly backwards. Israeli construction in E1 doesn’t preclude contiguity between the West Bank and Jerusalem, as the Israelis have built substantial infrastructure and bypass roads to connect parts of Jerusalem with parts of the West Bank in the absence of routes through E1. In contrast, Palestinian control of E1 actually does cut off Ma’aleh Adumim from the rest of Israel, as there is no parallel infrastructure to maintain Israeli access.

To begin with, building up E1 would indeed effect "contiguity between the West Bank and Jerusalem": Palestinians in Jerusalem would need to pass through Israeli territory—that is, international borders, should a two-state deal ever be reached—to get to the West Bank. Secondly, the vocabulary is wrong: what the Israel Project and, were it interested in a two-state deal, the government of Israel mean to preserve in E1 would be Palestinian "continuity" for transportation, not territorial contiguity. Looking at Elliott Abrams's explanation for the Israeli moves, it's clear what's expected is that the Israeli-built bypass roads for Palestinians will allow movement between the northern and southern West Bank. Some of these roads are already built; they would leave a Palestinian state reduced to a 16-meter-wide road at the center of the country. One can't, with a straight face, call this territorial "contiguity," especially since that road would be easy for Israel to close. (This in defense of an Israeli government that complains about its own "narrow waistline," which is nine-miles-wide.)

The Israel Project's logic also hinges on the notion that settlement is necessary in order to connect Ma'aleh Adumim to Israel proper, but that's a red herring. Israel controls E1 and will do so until negotiations settle the fate of the territory. The roads currently connecting the settlement to Jerusalem indeed run through E1. But the organization seems to imply that if Israel doesn't build further there, Palestinians would suddenly take over: "Palestinian control of E1 actually does cut off Ma’aleh Adumim." That's just a false dichotomy: Israel—and only Israel—controls that land.

Moreover, Ma'aleh Adumim was built where it is exactly to bifurcate the West Bank. Nonetheless, the settlement's now there and some 40,000 people live in it. If Israel, as it does, intends to keep Ma'aleh Adumim in a supposed final peace deal, it should make its case at the negotiating table; that's what this unilateral Israeli move would preclude. Both sides will insist they want some sort of corridor—not just an "umbilical chord"—and they must hammer out a tough compromise.

Most gallingly, the Israel Project centered its release on a statement by an anonymous Israeli official to the Washington Post that, as the title of the press release put it, "Israeli Officials Link House Announcement To 'Vital Interests', Reject Criticism." The statement echoes one by Benjamin Netanyahu, who said building settlements was in the "strategic interests of the State of Israel." Neither Netanyahu, nor the anonymous Israeli official in the Post explain exactly what these "vital interests" are. The Israel Project seems to have taken a stab at it, but fell flat. As such, the group should pipe up: what is the "vital interest" of moving Israeli civilians into the West Bank?