With elections around the corner, is Netanyahu bluffing on E1 housing plan?

With elections around the corner, is Netanyahu bluffing on E1 housing plan?

In announcing dramatic settlement expansion, the PM may have brought Israel-Europe relations to a new nadir. But that does not necessarily spell a protracted crisis

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

‘This is a new low in our relation with Europe,” a veteran Israeli diplomatic official told The Times of Israel on Monday evening. “When was the last time five ambassadors were summoned to hear harsh criticism? I don’t remember such a thing ever happening.”

The fact that Britain, France, Spain, Sweden and Denmark took the unprecedentedly harsh step of calling in their Israeli ambassadors to rebuke them over Israel’s plans to build 3,000 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — and especially in the E1 area east of Jerusalem — undoubtedly signifies a grave diplomatic crisis.

But although already strained relationships between foreign leaders and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached a nadir this week, the perception that the Europeans are now Israel’s foes is somewhat exaggerated. The US and Europe indeed worry about Israel’s stated intention to intensify settlement building beyond the Green Line, and are increasingly frustrated with what they perceive as Netanyahu’s drive to torpedo the possibility of a two-state solution. But according to some European diplomats, the world is sure that Netanyahu will not actually go through with the most alarming part of his plan.

The international community expresses disappointment and frustration every time Jerusalem announces plans to build Jewish homes beyond the Green Line — in both what Israel says is its sovereign capital Jerusalem, and in the West Bank. And for all the stated dismay over the expansion of East Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Ramat Shlomo in the city’s north, and Har Homa in the capital’s south, the world is particularly worried about Israel’s plans to de-freeze development in the E1 corridor, which connects Jerusalem to Ma’aleh Adumim, one of the largest West Bank settlements. That’s because building up this area is seen as the one step that would deal a death blow to an already ailing peace process.

“If construction goes ahead as planned in the E1 area, this will divide the West Bank in two, Jerusalem will be cut off from the West Bank, and any meaningful two-state solution will be impossible to achieve,” said Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, echoing many of his colleagues.

And yet many European diplomats, while certainly concerned about the prospects of additional Israeli settlement construction, do not think Netanyahu is actually going to build up E1.

“E1 is definitely the key word — it’s a red line that cannot be crossed, and the American and European governments did right to condemn Israel’s announcement. But really, hardly anyone thinks that the Israeli government is actually going to cross that line,” a senior European diplomat told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. “Netanyahu is playing with fire by making these kinds of announcements. But I don’t see the bulldozers rolling.”

The international community is deeply worried about the political signal Israel is sending by boasting of its intention to expand settlements in blatant disregard of international opposition, the senior diplomat said. By approving construction in the West Bank and creating additional facts on the ground, he said, Jerusalem gives the impression that it does not intend to work toward a two-state solution and a Palestinian state.

But the world’s capitals are also aware that Netanyahu is in the midst of an election campaign. Faced with a humiliating defeat last week at the United Nations General Assembly, which overwhelmingly (138 to 9) awarded nonmember state status to Palestine, the prime minister felt the need to retaliate, they believe. And despite those harsh reactions to the prospects of increased settlement building — the summoning of the ambassadors, the calls for a volte face, the US dismay and pressure — Netanyahu, the assessments in the diplomatic community go, Netanyahu cannot publicly back down now, less than 50 days before Israel heads to the polls. He will keep up the bellicose rhetoric to avoid appearing weak. But what will happen on the ground is a different story.

Most Israelis believe that Ma’aleh Adumim will be a part of Israel in any future peace agreement, and many do not see why building in E1 would cause such outrage. This is true especially for the right-wing voters Netanyahu appears to be courting with promises of increased settlement construction. However, the senior diplomat says, Netanyahu also “knows what price he would have to pay for building in E1, and I don’t think he wants to jeopardize the relationship with the US, also with regards to the Iranian questions” — a reference to the vital coordination needed with Washington to handle Tehran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

“Bibi is bluffing,” Michael Koplow wrote on Monday in the Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog, suggesting that the current situation is similar to the talk in government of adopting the so-called Levy report, which seeks to legally justify Israel’s West Bank settlements. Netanyahu, Koplow argued, tries to boost his right-wing credentials by making hawkish announcements, well aware that that he will not be able to follow through on many of them. (In July, Netanyahu pledged to adopt the controversial Levy report, which asserts that settlements are legal under international law and that Israel’s actions in the West Bank should thus not be considered an occupation. But he has yet to do so.)

“The fact that [the threat to build in E1] — just like the Levy Report — is an announcement that will never be acted upon does not negate the fact that it is good politics for Netanyahu,” Koplow wrote. “He is going to perform a delicate balancing act, in which he doubles down on settlements for a domestic audience while assuring the U.S. and the EU that E1 will remain a barren tract of land.”

A view of the Jewish West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, with controversial E1 tract in the background (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A view of the Jewish West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, with controversial E1 tract in the background (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Tuesday, one of Netanyahu’s opponents in the elections, Hatnua (The Movement) party chair Tzipi Livni, also predicted that Israel would rescind its decision to build in E1. The government may wait until after it is reelected to back down from the construction initiative, Livni said, while warning dramatically, however, that “by then we will have lost [the support of] the entire world and Israel’s closest friends.”

Indeed, it may well be that the government miscalculated the severity with which the West would react, and is already bent on damage control.

While ministers on Tuesday played down the diplomatic crisis, journalists were also being told that Israel’s future actions would depend on what the Palestinians do. “If they continue with unilateral steps, Israel will act accordingly,” a source in the Prime Minister’s Office declared.

But the Palestinian Authority, for now, has gotten what it wanted, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas has already stated that for the time being, the PA will not seek to incriminate Israel at the International Criminal Court or other international forums. So what Jerusalem may really be saying to the international community is this: We had to do something to punish the Palestinians for going unilaterally to the UN, so we announced our intention to increase settlement construction. We even threatened to make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible by building up E1. But if the Palestinian hold their fire, so will we.

Furthermore, Jerusalem has been keen to point out that the E1 plan is still on the drawing board.

“No decision has been made to actually build in E1,” a government official told The Times of Israel on Monday night. “We decided to build 3,000 new units in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs and to allow planning and zoning in other areas, including E1,” he clarified, emphasizing that planning and zoning were the first of about a dozen steps that had to be taken before actual construction could commence.

All of this is not to say that the US and the Europeans aren’t angry at what they perceive as Netanyahu’s petty, problematic and counterproductive response to the Palestinians’ UN status upgrade. And there are several painful measures that European nations in particular could take to punish Israel for expanding what they deem to be illegal settlements to Jerusalem’s north and south.

“They could start labeling West Bank products as coming from the occupied Palestinian territories, or they could refuse to help us when we need their votes at the United Nations Human Rights Council, or they could be less forthcoming on the Iranian issue,” an Israeli official said. “There are many things for which we routinely solicit their assistance, and they could turn a cold shoulder.”

Turning a cold shoulder, but not, it appears, walking out on Israel altogether. Unless, that is, Netanyahu proves not to have been bluffing after all.

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