An aerial view shows the controversial Israeli separation barrier in the Palestinian West Bank village of Abu Dis in the outskirts of Jerusalem on February 21, 2008. PHOTO: AFP//Menahem Kahana

Israel’s acting prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, up for election next month, has announced a massive settlement expansion east of Jerusalem, a move which would cut a proposed Palestinian state in two.

“We are building up Jerusalem and the outskirts of Jerusalem. I gave an immediate directive, to deposit plans to build 3,500 housing units in E-1,” the prime minister said, referring to the site on the outskirts of Israel’s claimed capital.

The move comes in the wake of the Trump administration’s ‘Deal of the Century,’ and after Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders said he would consider moving the US embassy back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv should he be elected president in 2020.

The Netanyahu plan would mark a significant expansion of the existing Maale Adumim settlement. In addition, 1,077 homes will be constructed in an area adjacent to Jerusalem known as Givat Hamatos.

As Netanyahu explained, this move is one of “enormous significance,” and “I believe that everyone here understands what that is.”

The existing Maale Adumim settlement already juts out east from Jerusalem, threatening to cut the West Bank in half as it grows nearer to the Dead Sea and Jordan River by linking up with the existing settlements of the Jordan Valley.

And the new construction in E-1 will serve to isolate the core Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem – Shoafat, Hizma and Abu Dis – from other Arab majority areas by creating a ring of Israeli settlements around them.

The Trump administration’s ‘Deal of the century’ designates Abu Dis as the capital of a future independent Palestinian state.

Netanyahu also announced that he would build a neighborhood on Givat Hamatos, an area in south Jerusalem that would link the capital to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem and surround two major Arab neighborhoods in the east of the city with Jewish settlements.

Beyond Jerusalem

Construction in these controversial areas will be accompanied by much larger projects elsewhere throughout the occupied territory.

“I instructed the ministry’s planning teams to prepare plans to expand communities in Judea and Samaria [occupied West Bank],” Minister of Construction and Housing Yifat Shasha Biton said, “and we currently have plans to build 46,000 housing units.”

This constitutes the largest burst of settlement expansion in Netanyahu’s long tenure. The bureaucratic process of construction is two to three years. However, in the current climate in Israel, the process seems unlikely to be halted. 

Although a neighborhood in E-1 was first planned under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s, it was never completed. There has been significant international pressure on Israel in the past to avoid developing the region due to its strategic location.

Ariel Sharon halted plans under pressure from the Bush administration in 2004 and 10 years later Netanyahu did the same when the Obama administration worked diligently to halt construction.

The Trump administration has not thus far objected to the plan. This is not surprising, since its ‘Deal of the century’ envisions Israel gaining sovereignty over all settled territory in the long run.

Both E-1 and Givat Hamatos territories are technically within the jurisdiction of existing settlements and therefore in line with the substantive outline of the plan. 

The European Union has also been silent. It has been reported that in the last spat over E-1, the UK and France threatened to withdraw their ambassadors from Tel Aviv. However, the days of a united EU critical of Israeli expansionism are gone.

The pro-Israeli bloc of Eastern European countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic have moved to water down and delay official statements. Some individual member-states have expressed condemnation, but the overall impression is of European disunity and disinterest.

This means that, as has often been the case, the Palestinians stand alone in resisting Israeli expansionism. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al Maliki said Wednesday that building up E-1 “is so dangerous, more dangerous than any other settlement plans in the West Bank.”

Surrounding Abu Dis

Although the international reaction has been underwhelming, this spat of construction will have major repercussions on the ground.

The envisioned expansion will isolate the populous Eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods from the West Bank, forcing them inexorably into the Israeli orbit.

The end result stands to make a mockery of the idea of a future contiguous and truly independent Palestinian State in two ways. It continues the longstanding Israeli project of de-facto dividing the Palestinian-controlled areas into a separate northern and southern sector separated by Israeli settlements and checkpoints.

Although apparently contradictory to the Trump peace plan in this regard, it complements the fundamental vision behind it.

The plan calls for a divided and weak “state” divided into isolated cantons with no military or ability to sustain itself independently. Placing the nominal capital within a claustrophobic ring of Jewish settlements and military checkpoints would serve that purpose perfectly.  

Having said that, this move is more about domestic politics than diplomatic grand strategy. Netanyahu is working tirelessly to energize his base for the upcoming elections. As opinions have become ossified in Israel through repeated iteration, the campaign has become turnout-based and this latest move was made in the hope of mobilizing right-wing voters.

The Likud is also waging a campaign to win voters from the racist Kahanist party, which looks unlikely to pass the electoral threshold. This is all part of Netanyahu’s increasingly forlorn attempt to maintain power and fight corruption charges from a position of power.

For these reasons, the prime minister is taking actions he long avoided during his many years in power. In more normal times, Netanyahu is known for making grand statements and empty gestures while building relatively few settlements. With more political elbow room, he was inhibited by a genuine understanding of Israeli interests and a keen sensitivity to American pressure.

However, with the third iteration of the Israeli elections merely days away and his trial beginning in less than a month, Netanyahu has pulled out all the stops in his bid to get re-elected. This latest pre-election move will likely have irreversible consequences.

The dangerous combination of an embattled Israeli prime minister trying to satisfy his right-wing base and an utterly permissive international community continues to wreak havoc on the possibility of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.