Commentary Magazine


Topic: E1 area

Netanyahu’s Message Was No Blunder

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.

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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 Palestinian Authority tried the UN gambit in order to avoid negotiations with Israel that might place its leader Mahmoud Abbas back in the embarrassing position of having to flee from another Israeli offer of statehood. While he has no intention of ever being put on the spot in that matter again, Abbas may be under the impression that the Israelis can be hammered into more unilateral concessions by means of foreign pressure.

This is a common thread that runs throughout the history of the conflict in which the Palestinian Arab leadership has always thought they could evade their responsibility to deal directly with Israel. It is a belief that was encouraged by President Obama’s foolish decision at the outset of his administration that peace would be brought closer by creating more daylight between Israel and the United States. The fights Obama picked with Israel only served to make it even more difficult for Abbas to come to the table even if he had wanted to.

Had the Europeans behaved in a principled manner and rebuffed the UN upgrade as a clear violation of the Oslo Accords, as they should have, it could be argued that Netanyahu’s decision would have been a mistake. But since the Europeans abandoned the peace process that they had heretofore championed, it was necessary for Israel to remind Abbas that he should realize that the vote in New York wouldn’t mean a thing on the ground in the Middle East.

As for the idea–repeated today by the editorial page of the New York Times–that E1 will make the world less willing to restrain Iran, the notion that the U.S. or Europe can hold Israel hostage on that issue is nonsensical. Iran is as much a threat to the rest of the world as it is to Israel, a point that President Obama has made time and again. Nor is there any evidence that any concessions on settlements made by Israel would make the administration any less reluctant to take action on Iran than it otherwise would be.

Despite all the huffing and puffing about E1, the move has not changed a thing between Israel and the West. But it was exactly what the Palestinians needed to hear. Had Netanyahu failed to remind Abbas he will pay a price for ditching Oslo, that would have been the real blunder.

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Israel’s Building No Obstacle to Peace

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.

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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.

Nor should the Israeli gesture be viewed as petulant. To the contrary, it is exactly what is needed to start changing the one-sided nature of the argument in international forums about the dispute over territory.

Though you wouldn’t know if from listening to the UN debate or even to most spokespersons for the Jewish state over the last forty years, the argument about the West Bank is not solely about pitting rights of Palestinians against Israel’s security needs. The West Bank is, after all, part of the area designated by the League of Nations for Jewish settlement under the Mandate of Palestine. It is also the heart of the ancient Jewish homeland to which Jews have historical, legal and religious ties that cannot be erased by a century of Arab hatred.

Some of Israel’s friends and all of its enemies claim that for Israel to speak of its rights to the West Bank is tantamount to saying that it doesn’t want peace. Not so. Just because it has rights there doesn’t mean that it must assert them under all circumstances, or that it wouldn’t, if convinced that peace was to be had, give up some or all of the territory in exchange for an end to the conflict. Indeed, throughout the last 20 years, Israel has been in engaged in peace talks or attempts to revive them, during the course of which it has made numerous concessions about territory to the Palestinians.

For its pains, Israel has been subjected to even greater vituperation and delegitimization during this period than before. So long as it does not speak of its rights, it will always be treated as a thief who must return stolen property rather than as a party to a conflict with its own justified claims.

Even if the E1 area is developed, there will be no obstacle to peace talks that could produce a Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank except for the major settlement blocs that no one expects Israel to give up. Nor would the Palestinian state be blighted by this project since highways and tunnels could easily be constructed to allow access between Arab areas to the north and the south of Jerusalem. Indeed, Jewish housing in the disputed areas is no more of an obstacle to peace than the far greater Arab housing boom in other parts of Jerusalem.

If the Palestinians truly wanted to live in peace in their own independent state next to Israel they could go back to the negotiating table and get it. If they were ever to actually offer an end to the conflict in which they recognized the legitimacy and the security of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn, they would find the Israeli people would welcome their offer and no Israeli government could refuse. Instead, the so-called moderates among them — Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah-run PA — avoid talks and go to the UN where they seek an international fiat rather than an agreement. Meanwhile, the far more popular extremists of Hamas govern an independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza with an iron fist and use it as a terrorist launching pad rather than to help their people.

A few Jewish homes aren’t the obstacle to Palestinian statehood. Their existence would make no difference to a peace deal that spoke of the 1967 lines with swaps, if that was actually the Palestinian goal. The problem is that to the Palestinians and their terrorist leaders, the E1 area is no more or less a settlement than the rest of Israel. Until they can rid themselves of the rejectionist spirit of 1947 in which they rejected the first UN vote to give them a state, talk of peace is empty rhetoric.

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