Saturday, 1 December 2012
Israel Approves New Settlement Construction in West Bank
The government authorized the building of 3,000 new housing units, an Israeli official said. Israel also gave preliminary planning approval for thousands more units, including the highly sensitive corridor just east of Jerusalem known as the E-1 land tract. The area is watched closely by the international community amid concern that a robust Israeli presence there would virtually bisect the West Bank and render a Palestinian state unviable.
The Israeli move shows how, after getting a badly needed boost in domestic and international standing by the U.N. vote, the paths ahead for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas—such as peace talks with Israel or reconciliation with Hamas—are likely to bring challenges.
The mention of E-1 is a blunt challenge by Israel, as it highlights the gap between the Palestinians' resounding but symbolic international victory at the U.N., and the situation inside the West Bank, where Israel exercises exclusive control.
"Israel is saying, 'You are taking unilateral steps? We are taking unilateral steps, too. And whereas your unilateral steps are empty, ours are tangible,' " said Nathan Thrall, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Mr. Abbas argued at the U.N. that the statehood resolution will enable him to push for a resumption of peace talks with Israel. That is because the international recognition of the West Bank and Gaza as part of a future Palestinian state ostensibly gives Mr. Abbas support in negotiating territorial claims with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who refuses to declare the Green Line border of the West Bank as the basis for negotiations.
The Palestinian leader has even hinted that he would drop his precondition of an Israeli settlement freeze after the vote. "With the popular strength he has after the U.N. vote, he might have the ability to finesse the issue of settlement expansion,'' said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian political analyst. But continued development of wide swaths of building, especially in the E-1 area, would make it significantly more difficult for Mr. Abbas to shake his commitment to the settlement freeze and pursue negotiations with Israel.
Any chances to restart peace talks, of course, depend on the outcome of the Israeli election in January. If Mr. Netanyahu emerges with a coalition of right-wing and religious parties, expectations for a resumption of peace talks would remain low.
A continued freeze in the peace talks could force Mr. Abbas to refocus on efforts to reconcile with Hamas, an effort that would win widespread support on the Palestinian street, which is frustrated with five years of political rift and wants to hold long-overdue elections for president and parliament. But Israel's current government has already said that it views unity with Hamas as a nonstarter for talks, and has threatened sanctions.
A White House spokesman criticized Israel's approval of the homes, calling it "counterproductive" for the resumption of peace negotiations. The U.S. had been one of a handful of countries to oppose the Palestinian resolution at the U.N., which it also labeled as counterproductive.
Despite the uproar, the apparent punitive measures from Israel weren't as harsh as those that the government had originally promised. Israeli ministers had threatened to topple the Palestinian government in the West Bank in the weeks before the vote and cut off the flow of tax revenues that Israel collects on the Palestinians' behalf.
But in the days before the decision, Israel walked back those threats and said the government would take a wait-and-see approach, and would continue to comply with previous agreements with the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli officials are waiting to see if Mr. Abbas will use the resolution to press the Palestinians advantage in international bodies—a third course of action for Mr. Abbas.
Analysts see this as the least-preferable option for the Palestinian leader because it would put him at loggerheads with the Obama administration, which has warned in private that such bids could trigger a harsh Israeli response.
On Friday, the Palestinian government denounced the Israeli housing plans and alleged that Mr. Netanyahu's administration isn't interested in a peace settlement.
"Israel did not understand the message that was sent loud and clear at the United Nations General Assembly," said Nour Odeh, a Palestinian government spokeswoman. "The announcement shows the Israeli government is commitment to investing in the occupation, not the two-state solution."
The announcement poured cold water on Palestinian celebrations of the U.N. passage of the resolution, which had bolstered Mr. Abbas's standing and spurred festivities throughout the West Bank in to the early hours of Friday morning.
The U.N. vote provided a boost for Mr. Abbas's program of using diplomacy to win statehood—a push that appeared tarnished after eight days of fighting in the Gaza Strip won Hamas, which promotes armed conflict with Israel, wide regional acclaim.
As the elation subsides, Mr. Abbas should move beyond the momentary symbolism of the vote and create a mind-set of statehood among Palestinians even as Israel remains in control, said analysts.
``There's been a game change,'' said Gershon Baskin, an Israeli political analyst and peace activist. "He has to take the state of Palestine—which is right now on a piece of paper—and turn it into something real, at least in people's consciousness.''
There was no immediate comment by Israeli officials on the housing announcement.
The Israeli official who announced the 3,000 units also referred to planning authorizations for a tract of land known as "E-1," which is sensitive because it is a corridor that would connect Jerusalem to the settlement of Maaleh Adumim, a spawling suburb located several miles to the east.
Policy makers in the U.S. and Europe follow activity in E-1 closely because it if is developed, it would nearly bisect the entire West Bank, forcing Palestinians to travel in a circutous route to get from northern to south.
"E-1 will signal the end of two-state solution,'' said Daniel Seidmann, an Israeli peace advocate who focuses on Jerusalem building, in a Twitter post. "E-1 can't be built today—it requires further statutory planning, which will take 6-9 months."
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