Dozens of governments, starting with our own, have denounced the Israeli announcement–made soon after the UN General Assembly vote last week–about more housing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
In particular, the Netanyahu government has been criticized for building housing in the area known as E-1. E-1 is the space between Jerusalem and the city of Ma’ale Adumim, with its population of 40,000. The Israeli security argument is simple: it is impossible to have Ma’ale Adumim connected to Jerusalem only by one road because that road can all too easily be blocked and communication between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim (and beyond to the Jordan valley and border) cut off. This argument has persuaded all Israeli prime ministers who have faced the question, starting with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. It can be argued in reply that they insisted on the right and intention to build eventually, but did not build–but the same is true today of the Netanyahu government. What the prime minister announced last week was permission to do zoning and planning, not permission to build one apartment.
The argument against any Israeli construction in E-1 is that it would make a Palestinian state impossible because that state would lack contiguity. The contiguity argument cuts many ways: I can recall Israeli officials saying Ma’ale Adumim exists, has a population (of 35,000 back then), and must be contiguous to Israel. But the Palestinian argument suggests that because roads would need to go east of Ma’ale Adumim, or go over or under the Jerusalem-Ma’ale Adumim road, a state is impossible. That is a hard argument to prove. First, there is of course the UN vote: the celebrations in Ramallah reflected the UN decision that Palestine is a state already now, if not yet a UN member. Second, why would the construction of roads that fully permit north-south movement in the West Bank–for example, from Nablus to Bethlehem and Hebron–make mobility and economic activity impossible? That such roads must be available, and must be good enough to carry current and predicted future traffic quickly, is certain but hardly an impossible challenge.
The argument over E-1 is not new, nor is planning there some sort of right-wing plot that reflects this particular Israeli coalition. As noted, every prime minister from the left has had precisely the same position, and all new units in the West Bank today must be approved by the Defense Minister, Ehud Barak. That does not make the Israeli position correct but puts it in a bit of perspective.
The rest of the perspective is last week’s vote, which the United States, Israel, and numerous European countries urged the PLO not to insist on. Israel had long said it would take drastic steps if the PLO went forward, and had to do something in reaction. It has announced that it will apply tax funds owed to the Palestinian Authority to debts owed to the Israel Electric Corporation (debts that now amount to 800 million shekels, about $200 million) for electricity supplied, and has announced planning for E-1 and construction in the major settlement blocks and Jerusalem. Construction in the major blocks and in Jerusalem is hardly a surprise, and does not differ from the policy of Israel’s previous government under Prime Minister Olmert and the Kadima party. The deal reached between the Bush Administration and the government of Prime Minister Sharon in 2004 was to permit construction of additional housing units inside the major blocks and other settlements, but not the construction of new settlements or the physical expansion of existing ones. The current decision fits easily within those terms. The Obama administration has never accepted that agreement between the United States and Israel, but I mention it to show that Israel’s reaction to the Palestinian UN initiative is hardly excessive or surprising.