Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Are plans for new Israeli settlements all they seem?

Letter from Jerusalem: Netanyahu watchers spot bluff in bombshell


To a Londoner, E1 sounds like the inner city. The five square miles of swirling, barren hilltops perched on the edge of the Judean desert that make up Jerusalem’s E1 could not be further from the bustling streets of Whitechapel.

There is nothing here to spoil the biblical landscape overlooking the highway to Jericho and the Dead Sea, save for a few Bedouin tribesmen with their herd of goats in a ramshackle encampment and a fortress-like Israeli police headquarters.

But this largely empty piece of land is now the focus of a bitter dispute that many believe could determine the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Viewed north to south, it provides a corridor for the Palestinians from Ramallah to Bethlehem bordering a future capital in East Jerusalem, ensuring the geographical unity of a future Palestinian state. Viewed from west to east, it provides a land bridge between Jerusalem and the Israeli settlements of the Judean desert and Jordan Valley, ensuring continued Israeli control of that area.

Following last week’s UN vote conferring the position of “non-member state” on Palestine, the Israeli government announced plans to speed up West Bank settlement construction, including the development of E1.

Palestinian leaders denounced the move as a death-blow to the two-state solution. Israel’s ambassadors were hauled into foreign ministries from Whitehall to Canberra for a rare dressing-down. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be getting similar treatment in Germany today from Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But long-time observers of Mr Netanyahu caution that the E1 announcement and the accompanying promise to speed up housing starts in East Jerusalem may be more bluff than bombshell. The plan to build on E1 has been on Israel’s drawing-board for at least 20 years.

Meir Margalit, a Left-wing Jerusalem city councillor who has been tracking Israeli statements on East Jerusalem for more than a decade, says the government’s announcement should be seen in light of Israel’s general election, just six weeks away.

“People don’t realise that between the declaration by the prime minister and the day when the bulldozers start to prepare the ground for houses can be up to seven years,” says Mr Margalit.

“Nothing will change in the coming days. Over the last 10 years, of the housing units announced by the government in East Jerusalem, only 20 per cent were actually built. This is for internal consumption. It is more related to our domestic elections than what happened at the UN last week.”

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