Maaleh Adumim, West Bank — Mayor Benny Kashriel is a busy man, but these days he’s not focused on fixing potholes or garbage collection in the West Bank’s second-largest settlement.
Instead, the long-serving mayor’s schedule is packed with politics: meeting with lawmakers from the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, appearing with former Arkansas’ Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee at a cornerstone ceremony and putting the finishing touches on a letter to President-elect Donald Trump appealing for help expanding Maaleh Adumim — “the capital’s protective wall.”
It’s all part of a campaign backed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett to take advantage of the change of administrations in the U.S. and push a bill through Israel’s parliament to de facto annex a sprawling bedroom community of some 40,000 residents that sits on desert hilltops a few miles to the east of Jerusalem.
If passed by the parliament in the coming months, a statute extending Israeli law to Maaleh Adumim would be seen as the first move in a larger push to annex much of the West Bank and bury the prospects for a Palestinian state — almost certainly exposing Israel to rising international isolation over West Bank settlements and its policy toward the Palestinians.
It would also create one of the first Middle East policy challenges for the incoming Trump administration.
For Kashriel, however, passage of the annexation bill would ensure that Maaleh Adumim — a settlement founded under Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s Labor government in 1975 — would not be part of negotiations with the Palestinians.
“We need to show the world that we have red lines that we don’t concede on; Maaleh Adumim is a red line,” he said. “True, there will be condemnations and arguments. I don’t think there will be sanctions. We extended Israeli law to east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and there were condemnations. There are always condemnations at the U.N. At the end of the day, the world got used to it.”
For Kashriel’s allies, annexing Maaleh Adumim would be an on-the-ground response for the recent United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the settlements as illegal, as well as the speech by Secretary of State Kerry criticizing settlement activity as an obstacle to peace leading Israelis and the Palestinians to a one-state reality.
In interviews and press appearances, Bennett is making his case to the public with catchy declarations: “If there won’t be sovereignty, there will be Palestine. It’s either sovereignty or Palestine. There are no other options,” Bennett said at a press conference here this week. Speaking to Israeli army radio on Tuesday, the education minister said Israel needs to take advantage of a political window of opportunity and push for the Trump administration to support annexation.
For Bennett, annexing Maaleh Adumim would mark the first step in a plan to annex some 60 percent of the West Bank, enabling Israel to add all of the settlements and most of the open territory there while leaving the Palestinian villages and cities with what he envisions as “autonomy on steroids.”
Politically, Bennett and Kashriel’s campaign could put Netanyahu in a bind — forcing him to either go along with a plan that would complicate Israel’s foreign relations or risk being isolated within his ideological right-wing constituency that is opposed to a Palestinian state and still dreams about retaining control over all of biblical Israel.
“I don’t think it will happen; it’s an idea of the ideological right that is to the right of the prime minister,” said Alexander Jacobson, a professor of history at Hebrew University.
“Netanyahu isn’t interested in a partial or full annexation. He wants the status quo: Legally, the status quo should be kept until there is a peace treaty that establishes new boundaries,” Jacobson said. On the other hand, “Netanyahu doesn’t want to come out too strongly against the principle of annexing Maaleh Adumim because he doesn’t want to be seen as out of step with the Israeli consensus.”
Perched on a series of hilltops in the barren Judean desert along the highway from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, Maaleh Adumim gives Jerusalem a buffer against any conventional threat from the east. At the entrance to the mayor’s office hangs a picture of Kashriel with Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin surrounded by maps — a meeting in which the Labor prime minister formally enlarged the settlement’s boundaries to include a massive chunk of territory stretching from Jerusalem nearly to Jericho.
Known as E1, the undeveloped lands part of the settlement have been watched closely by the international community out of fear that a massive expansion would effectively sever the northern West Bank from the southern West Bank, making a viable Palestinian state impossible.
“This is not just the built-up area of Maaleh Adumim,” said Dror Etkes, an Israeli activist who monitors settlement growth. “It’s the biggest judicial area in the West Bank with 10,000 dunams. Needless to say, the idea behind it is to block the Palestinians to create any contiguity between the northern and southern West Bank.”
Such a large tract of land would make it much more difficult, if not impossible, for Israel to engage in any land swaps with the Palestinians supported by the U.S. government. It would also be seen as a unilateral move to determine the outcome of any future negotiations.
Kashriel insists that annexation would not preclude the establishment of the Palestinian state, calling this a “lie” perpetuated by the international community. He said that Palestinian highways could be built to speed north-south links. Annexation, he said, would eliminate the need for residents of Maaleh Adumim to get military permits and approvals for development.
The mayor complained that building has been more or less frozen in the last eight years in the city because of pressure from the Obama administration against settlement construction, though Etkes said aerial photography shows expansion, and data from Peace Now suggest there were about 200 housing starts from 2009 to 2014.
Andy Luterman, a longtime Maaleh Adumim resident, said he prefers living in Maaleh Adumim to Jerusalem because residents receive better municipal services for less property tax, and the city is cleaner than Jerusalem.
Luterman said that he worried that the annexation bill is being pushed from “the top down” by politicians looking to gain political points. He said he would prefer it if the city expanded quietly rather than attracting an international spotlight and targeting every hilltop for development. There’s enough room for expansion, he said, without building a new neighborhood in E1.
“Maaleh Adumim isn’t going anywhere, and anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t know what they are talking about,” said Luterman, a Pittsburgh native who has lived in the settlement for 30 years. “But annexation is a rub-your-face-in-it triumphalism.”
But for Nancy Statfield, who moved here from New York in 2005, the annexation bill would be an important statement to the world that Israel is in the West Bank to stay.
While some people describe the residents of the city as “quality of life” settlers with flexible political convictions, Statfield said that moving over the 1967 border is an ideological move: “You make a statement by living here, by establishing facts on the ground.”