Awkwardly timed settlement announcement, part two

Why does the government risk rounds of bitter criticism for building over the pre-1967 line — as with the 2,610 apartments in Givat Hamatos this week — when the bulldozers are silent?

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

The Givat Hamatos neighborhood, Jerusalem (photo credit: Joshua Davidovich/Times of Israel)
The Givat Hamatos neighborhood, Jerusalem (photo credit: Joshua Davidovich/Times of Israel)

We’ve been in this movie before: two senior leaders from America and Israel meet and reassure each other of their mutual support and appreciation, when suddenly news breaks of another Israeli plan to expand construction for Jewish homes in East Jerusalem. Washington is deeply offended, Jerusalem badly embarrassed.

The first showing was in March 2010. US Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel when the Israeli Interior Ministry unveiled plans for 1,600 housing units in the capital’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, which is located beyond the Green Line. The announcement was “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now,” Biden sniped. Then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton called it “insulting.”

Four and a half years later, construction still hasn’t started in Ramat Shlomo, an overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in northern Jerusalem. And that may well be because of the outcry caused by that ill-timed announcement. The diplomatic damage was done.

This week, we witnessed the second installment: A few hours before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, the leftwing Peace Now organization issued a press release about 2,610 housing units that Israel planned to build in Givat Hamatos. A more or less barren plot of land on the capital’s southern edge, this planned new neighborhood, too, is located on the wrong side of the pre-1967 lines.

Bird's-eye view of Ramat Shlomo, March 1, 2013 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Bird’s-eye view of Ramat Shlomo, March 1, 2013 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The public appearance of the two leaders in front of the cameras went smoothly, and Netanyahu later said that Obama did not bring up this specific case in their subsequent two-hour conversation. But hours after the prime minister had left the White House, American officials dished out: this development will “poison the atmosphere” and distance Israel “from even its closest allies.”

US Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Germany, February 2013 (photo credit: AP/Markus Schreiber)
US Vice President Joe Biden (photo credit: AP/Markus Schreiber/File)

France, too, condemned the plan, saying it would mark the first new settlement in East Jerusalem in 15 years if Israel went ahead with the project. “This announcement directly threatens the two-state solution,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

Israeli officials professed themselves perplexed at the hostile reaction. “I don’t understand this criticism, and I don’t accept this position,” Netanyahu told reporters late Wednesday, responding to the rebuke from Washington when he arrived back at his New York hotel. The administration had jumped to erroneous conclusions about the new development, he claimed, exhorting the Americans to “learn the information properly before deciding to take a position like that.” (The US quickly rejected Netanyahu’s assertion that it was unaware of the facts.)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with US president Barack Obama, at the White House, Washington DC on October 01, 2014. (Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with US president Barack Obama, at the White House, Washington DC on October 01, 2014. (Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)

The Givat Hamatos case is inherently different from Ramat Shlomo, and the vociferous responses from Washington and Paris this week therefore somewhat surprising. For one thing, about a third of the 2,610 apartments planned for Givat Hamatos are designated for Arabs living in the area. More significantly, though, the plans are yesterday’s news — they were approved two years ago.

“There’s absolutely no news here, it’s a recycled story,” an official in the office of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat told The Times of Israel Thursday. “This not a new project. What happened is just one stage in a long bureaucratic process.” The latest approval brings the project one step closer to its conclusion, but it’s unlikely that any bulldozers will appear at the site in the coming months, the official added.

Indeed, there still is some time before the actual apartments are going to be built, acknowledged Hagit Ofran, the director of Peace Now’s settlement watch project. However, on September 24 the planning for the project took an important milestone, when the Jerusalem municipality’s Planning and Construction Committee published an ad in a Kol Hair, a local weekly, announcing the “validation” of the project, she said. “While the committee had approved the plan two years ago, no tenders or actual construction work can start before the validation of the plan has been publicly announced.”

That hurdle has been cleared now. That means that while no buildings will go up in Givat Hamatos for at least another year, the project is indeed taking significant steps forward.

Why Givat Hamatos matters

The international community, which does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and thus opposes any Israeli construction there, is especially concerned about Givat Hamatos — more so than, say, Ramat Shlomo. (Shortly after the diplomatic flurry with Biden, Netanyahu ordered the Interior Ministry to hold off on advancing the project. It has since moved on, and tenders were issued, but it remains unclear when construction is going to commence.)

In December 2012, when the plans for the 2,610 housing units for Givat Hamatos were first announced, the international community came down hard on Israel. The European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, for instance, called the development “unprecedented” and “extremely troubling.” The plan “would cut the geographic continuity between Jerusalem and Bethlehem,” she declared.

US State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki. (screen capture: YouTube)
US State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki. (screen capture: YouTube)

Givat Hamatos continued to occupy the minds of European policymakers. Roughly two months ago, on July 22, the foreign ministers of all EU member states jointly called on Israel to halt settlement expansion, “especially in sensitive areas such as Har Homa, Givat Hamatos and E1, which severely threatens the two state solution.” US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki on Wednesday likewise referred to Givat Hamatos as a “sensitive area.”

What is so sensitive about this inconspicuous neighborhood, where Russian and Ethiopian immigrants have been living in caravans since its establishment in 1991?

“You can see the plan for Givat Hamatos as an effort to create facts on the ground in order to prevent the future division of Jerusalem,” explained Yitzhak Reiter, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. “In geopolitical terms, it really does disconnect the southern West Bank from Jerusalem.”

Building apartments in this relatively small piece of land does not exactly kill the two-state solution, he said, but it does disconnect, to some extent, the West Bank from Jerusalem. It certainly helps build up a belt of continuous Israeli civilian presence flanking Jerusalem from the South.

The realization of the Jerusalem municipality’s plan for Givat Hamatos would effectively cut the territorial continuity between the Palestinian neighborhoods of Beit Safafa and Sharfat and the rest of the West Bank according to Peace Now’s Ofran. These neighborhoods would be encircled almost entirely by Gilo, located to their south, she explained. Arab residents of these two communities would be left with only be a small corridor to the north.

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Ofran admitted that building up a part of Givat Hamatos — the current brouhaha is about one of four planned districts of the neighborhood, albeit the largest — does not necessarily spell the end to the two-state solution. But it would be “very problematic in terms of creating a viable Palestinian state,” she asserted.

More than the mere geographic considerations, Palestinians are adamant about their fierce opposition to any building in East Jerusalem for political reasons, posited Reiter, from the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. “They see it as another step of the Judaization of Jerusalem.”

Condemnation now, building later?

In the mean time, though, not a single building has gone up, neither in Givat Hamatos nor in Ramat Shlomo. And despite Israeli officials vowing that construction will go ahead, it is estimated that it will take at least a year, if not more, before anything happens on the ground.

So why does the Israeli government risk international condemnation time and again — even several times for the same project at various stages of approval, as we saw this week?

One possible reason is that while announcements of construction plans beyond the Green Line draw heavy fire from abroad, they are celebrated by Israel’s pro-settlement forces in the Knesset and within Netanyahu’s coalition.

“The government clearly hopes that these neighborhoods will actually be built,” said Reiter. “They’re hoping for the day on which the international pressure decreases so that they can bring the projects to their conclusion. In the mean time, they’re advancing slowly, step by step.”

Comparing the government’s approach to settlement expansion to Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons, he said the government is slowly moving forward, taking one bureaucratic hurdle at a time, just waiting for an opportune time to dash toward the finish line.

As soon as a pretext is found — say, another kidnapping of Jewish teenagers or a similar atrocity — the government will have a good excuse for advancing with such building plans, Reiter said.

In the mean time, the projects are slowly crawling through the various bureaucratic hoops. When the Jerusalem municipality said this week that Givat Hamatos is old news, “that’s a tactic to fend off the external criticism,” said Reiter.

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