Building new housing for settlers in the E1 area of the occupied West Bank is probably the most decisive action the Israeli government could take to subvert a two state compromise solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yet this, along with the building of 3,000 other settler units and playing brinksmanship with the already struggling Palestinian economy by withholding tax transfers, is precisely what prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to do in response to the overwhelming UN endorsement last Thursday of the Palestinian application for non-member state status.
The vote showed both the breadth of international backing for a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem and the extent to which even friendly European countries are fed up with Israel’s continuing illegal settlement of areas the Palestinians will need if they are to have a viable state on the 22 per cent of British mandatory Palestine for which president Mahmoud Abbas is willing to settle.
But rather than view the vote as cause for taking stock and possibly changing course, Mr Netanyahu has decided a defiant posture is the way to go. He reckons, perhaps correctly, that Washington will do nothing beyond a little verbal hand wringing. On the domestic front, Israel has an election coming up next month, and a defiant pose can help draw votes away from other pro-settler parties. And above these considerations is the fact that he himself is dead set against a viable Palestinian state.
E1 refers to an area of land between the sprawling West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim and the occupied East Jerusalem area Palestinians view as their future capital. Successive US administrations have warned Israel not to build there because it would destroy prospects for a two state solution.
“If E1 is built there is no possibility of getting to an agreement on two states,” says Hagit Ofran, who monitors settlement for the Israeli Peace Now organisation. “It’s a heart of the Palestinian state and building there cuts the Palestinian area up into northern and southern parts and isolates East Jerusalem from the West Bank.”
Under pressure from the Obama administration, Mr Netanyahu gave qualified verbal endorsement to a two state solution. But this was mere lip service. “This government is not interested in a two state solution,” says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies. “It is expanding settlement in such a way that it becomes impossible to create a viable Palestinian state. This is a government of settlers.”
That is unlikely to change as a result of the upcoming election, with polls showing Mr Netanyahu on track to form a new government at the head of the most right-wing list of candidates for a ruling party in the Knesset in Israeli history.
Israel’s battle against a genuine two state solution is not being conducted only through settlements. In a step that subverts the PA economy and raises questions about whether the 170,000 PA employees who form the West Bank’s economic backbone will receive their salaries, Israel yesterday announced it would withhold transfer of tax monies it collects for the PA in accordance with self-rule agreements. The move comes during the worst economic crisis in the West Bank since self-rule was launched in 1994.
• Ben Lynfield reports for The Scotsman from Jerusalem