Maaleh Adumim, West Bank — The hilltop range to the northeast of this sprawling suburban Israeli settlement is barren save for a fortress-like police station, a multilane access route, electric lines, and water mains — infrastructure for a new neighborhood.
The exit sign from the highway points the way to “Mevaseret Adumim,” envisioned as an expansion of Israel’s third-most populous Jewish settlement, but the world knows it as “E-1,” a highly sensitive tract of land some believe could determine the fate of a two-state solution.
Now E-1 could become the first major stumbling block between Jerusalem and a second-term Obama administration.
That’s because for years, Israel has honored U.S. objections to advancing development plans in E-1, out of concern that connecting Maaleh Adumim to Jerusalem though E-1 would render a contiguous Palestinian state unviable.
But, in retaliation for the United Nations resolution on Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel announced plans to advance housing on E-1, spurring a diplomatic flare-up between Israel and its surprised allies.
Five leading European countries, Australia and Brazil summoned Israeli ambassadors for a dress down. Meanwhile, White House spokesperson Jay Carney called on Israel to “reconsider” the decision.
“Obviously, it’s quite alarming,” said a U.S. official, who requested anonymity because the official is not authorized to speak on the issue.
Obama associates outside of the administration have been more explicit. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, the president’s former chief of staff, said the Israeli move amounted to a betrayal of President Barack Obama after his support of Israel during its eight-day war with Hamas.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, told Haaretz that the decision to build in E-1 was a “low blow” and was being viewed by the administration as a retaliation for the president’s refusal to reaffirm a letter by President George W. Bush recognizing that a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement would have to take into account settlement blocs.
Meanwhile, Israeli commentators and pundits were also asking whether the prime minister was risking ties with the U.S. and key European allies over E-1.
Mitchell Barak, a public opinion expert and former adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, likened the announcement about the land tract to an Israeli “shell game” because there’s still no final green light for the project. Instead of pursuing an action that would irk the U.S., Israel should have teamed up with allies in Congress to push U.S. aid sanctions against the Palestinians, he said.
“The U.S. stood by Israel at the UN; Israel has to learn that it can’t keep doing things to annoy the U.S.,” said Barak. The E-1 move “is without any regard for the support of the U.S. and their strategic interests.”
The U.S. has been keeping an eye on the E-1 tract since the mid-1990s. The Israeli settlement of Maaleh Adumim, a sprawling Jerusalem suburb in the West Bank, considers the tract part of its town plan and has pushed for the development of a new neighborhood — Mevaseret Adumim. Maaleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel says Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin promised him the land for housing.
But past Israeli prime ministers have been warned by successive U.S. governments not to advance building plans there. That includes Bush, who told former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to freeze plans on infrastructure work in E -1 and not to surprise the U.S. with more settlement activity, according to one expert.
The fear is that developing E-1 and linking Jerusalem to Maaleh Adumim would nearly bisect the entire West Bank and disrupt the territorial contiguity of a Palestinian state.
“The U.S. said [to Israel that] you are not going to dictate the outcome of negotiations by building there,” said Daniel Siedemann, a dovish expert on building in east Jerusalem who maintains contacts with Israeli and foreign officials. “Since 2005, when President Bush weighed in on this, there was no action on E-1. Netanyahu did give assurances to the Obama administration that [Israel] will not act on E-1.”
But in an interview with the Israeli news website Walla!, Moshe Yaalon, minister for strategic affairs, said that after the Palestinian success at the UN last week — considered by Israel as a unilateral violation of its peace accord with the Palestinians — Israel no longer considers itself bound by such assurances.
“It was clear to us that there would be a response from the U.S. and European states,” he said. “The move of Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] was a blunt violation of all the agreements with us. … The world must understand that the message received in Israel is that it cannot rely on agreements.”
In a position paper published by the right-of-center Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Israel sees E-1 as necessary to securing Jerusalem. Israel contends that building in the land tract wouldn’t compromise the contiguity of a Palestinian state.
“Israel will continue to stand up for its essential interests, even in the face of international pressures. There won’t be any change in the decisions that were made,” said an official in the prime minister’s office, in response to the European diplomatic rebukes. “One shouldn’t be surprised that Israel didn’t stand with its arms folded in the face of the Palestinian unilateral steps.”
With two months left before Israel’s election, the U.S. will have to decide whether it will ratchet up the pressure on Israel over E-1, or let the controversy die down until Israel takes another step in development stages.
Washington will have to tread carefully. A public spat with Israel and the U.S. during the election campaign could be used by Netanyahu to bolster support among his hard-core constituents, though it could risk shedding support in the center because Israelis are uncomfortable about open rifts with their country’s most important ally.
For now, the only sign that E-1 could become “Mevaseret Adumim” is a 2009 certificate at an overlook marking the foundation stone for the new neighborhood. Seidemann said that the unfrozen planning process could yield actual construction here within nine months, but will Netanyahu actually go through with it?
After letting Europe take the lead in pressing Israel, the U.S. hasn’t had its last word, officials and analysts say.
“This is far from over,” Seidemann said. “I don’t think the final votes are in.”