The Jerusalem Local Planning Committee granted permits Wednesday for 144 housing units in the long contested neighborhood of Har Homa, and for 40 others in Pisgat Ze’ev, also across the Green Line. As Israel pushes forward with West Bank construction despite US disapproval, opposition member of the Jerusalem municipal council, Yosef Allo, suggests that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has abandoned hope for an agreement with the Palestinians before the April 29 deadline. The announcement is timed, according to Allo, while the Americans and the EU, the “big boys” are occupied with Crimea.
The deadline for Israel and Palestine to reach an agreement appears unlikely given the impasse between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over the issue of Palestinian recognition of Israel. Abbas argues that Palestine recognized Israel in 1988, and as part of the Oslo process in 1993. Netanyahu insists on a status that is somewhere outside of the realm of normal designations of sovereignty: recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews. Abbas categorically refuses. The chance of Israel conceding to East Jerusalem being the capital of a Palestinian state seems a distant fantasy.
Abbas assesses the situation in terms characteristically schematic for this type of negotiation, which is largely public posturing; he suggests that given the choice of settlements or peace, Israel is choosing settlements. With a Likud negotiation partner as deft at participating in the peace process while working towards its ultimate failure, Abbas seems, after his visit to Washington to be the one who is more trustworthy. Despite the ongoing progress of Israel’s negotiated release of Palestinian prisoners, territorial actions and hostile rhetoric towards the US speak differently. Israel has a strategy of eminently skillful negotiating within the process. However, as Israel pushes forward with West Bank construction despite US disapproval, the appearance is of trying to run out the process before having to make ultimate concessions.
The development of the Har Homa area has garnered attention through the course of two decades. Granting permits at this stage in the peace process appears a symbolic and triumphant gesture for Likud supporters. In 1997 Har Homa came before the UN General Assembly which sought to block construction underway. At the time, the US played the role of unwavering supporter of an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Against unanimous approval in the Security Council, the US vetoed a similar measure to halt construction. The terms of the Oslo process exclude development in the West Bank pending final status agreement.
Research in Israeli government financial documents by the leftist group Peace Now documents the significant funds devoted to financial support encouraging West Bank settlement. A line item in the 2012 budget for construction of Har Homa settlement allocated over $200 million. In addition Peace Now research finds money passed through to West Bank Israeli communities at a rate approximately double that for other communities in Israel. In mid-February 2014 Israel added 35 settlements in isolated areas of the West Bank to a list of favored communities on a new “national priorities” map. Communities within one kilometer of a hostile border will be given tax benefits as well as government support for infrastructure construction, education, culture and, not unexpectedly, housing.
In distinction from the granting of building permits now in Har Homa, Israel has used the announcement of tender issues for development of housing units in the West Bank— a process similar to making a call for bids or proposals— to resist the peace process and thumb its nose at the United States. In March 2013 Israel issued tenders for 1889 units in the West Bank and Jerusalem just before a visit by John Kerry. In many cases progression from the stage of tenders being issued to units being constructed is interrupted and contested. A tender issued in 2008 for 130 units of housing for the elderly, known as Har Homa B, resulted in no contracts at that time, nor when it was issued again in 2011 and in 2012.
In November 2010 a US State Department spokesman expressed deep disappointment over the announcement of plans to build 1025 units in Har Homa. The spokesman suggested the action undermined trust and called it counterproductive to resumption of then stalled peace talks. An Israeli Interior Ministry spokesperson denied allegations at the time that the announcement was related to Netanyahu’s visit later that week to meet then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York. Earlier that year, a similar announcement timed to Joe Biden’s Israel visit in March 2010 produced complaint by the US, and Israeli protest of coincidence of a merely procedural rather than symbolic announcement.
Jewish settlements once established in the West Bank will not be given up. Formulations of the territory of a Palestinian state are based on the boundaries of the West Bank with the exclusion of Jewish settlements already established. As Israel pushes forward with West Bank construction despite US disapproval, Likud can count on the fervor of religiously ideological settlers, and territorial actions clearly play to them. The scenario of Israeli settler families being forced out of their homes in the West bank with bulldozers, military forces and tear gas— from Israel or Palestine— could simply never come to pass.
Opinion by Lawrence M. Shapiro