The conventional wisdom about the Israeli government’s decision to allow new building projects in Jerusalem in the E1 area between the city and the Ma’ale Adumim suburb is that it was a blunder. Critics of Prime Minister Netanyahu claim the move has worsened relations with the United States, alienated European nations and heightened the country’s diplomatic isolation. Others claim that in doing so he has “distracted” the world from concentrating on the nuclear threat from Iran. Even worse, most of his detractors are sure that the only reason he did it was to appease more extreme members of his party so as to secure their support in the upcoming Knesset election. Seen in that light, calling it a blunder would seem to be charitable.
But like most pieces of conventional wisdom, the assumption that Netanyahu has hurt his country is not accurate. Even if shovels went in the ground in the E1 area tomorrow — something that actually won’t happen for a long time, if ever — Israel would be no more or less isolated than it was the day before the announcement. Nor would relations with the Obama administration be any better. All Netanyahu has done is to remind his country’s critics that Israel isn’t willing to lie down and accept the false narrative about the West Bank and Jerusalem that was swallowed whole at the United Nations last week. As Seth wrote earlier, this won’t change Israel’s relationship with Europe. The focus on the European and American positions on settlements has obscured the fact that the primary audience for this move is in Ramallah, not Paris, London or Washington. The E1 decision sends a necessary signal to the Palestinians lest they be deceived by their triumph in the General Assembly. What Netanyahu has done is to show Israel won’t give up an inch of territory unless the Palestinians return to the negotiating table and even then, only if they agree to end the conflict for all time.
The reaction to Israel’s announcement on Friday that it had approved building plans in Jerusalem and its suburbs was nearly unanimous. Even those who disapproved of the vote by the General Assembly of the United Nations to upgrade the Palestinian Authority to a pseudo-state at the world body damned the housing as either a childish tantrum on the part of the Israeli government to demonstrate their anger or a genuine threat to peace. The argument is that by allowing building in the E1 development area that connects the Maale Adumim suburb to the city, Israel will be foreclosing the possibility of a two-state solution since this would effectively cut the West Bank in half and forestall its viability as an independent Palestinian state.
It sounds logical but it’s absolute nonsense. If the Palestinians did want a two-state solution, the new project as well as the other ones announced yesterday for more houses to be built in 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem wouldn’t stop it. That’s true even of those that say that the final borders of Israel and a putative state of Palestine must be based on the 1949 armistice lines with agreed-upon land swaps. Those swaps wouldn’t amount to more than a few percentage points of the total land area of the West Bank and probably preclude Israel keeping many far-flung settlements in the territory. But everyone knows that the swaps would have to account for the Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem, including Maale Adumim and the other towns in the vicinity that are already inside the security fence that does not protect most settlements. But the operative phrase here is “if” the Palestinians wanted such a solution. They have refused every offer of a state they’ve gotten and refused even to negotiate for four years, not to mention employing the UN gambit specifically in order to avoid talks. The notion that Israeli building in areas that everyone knows they would keep if there was a deal in place is stopping peace from breaking out is ludicrous.