In case the news had passed people by, here is a reminder of what’s been going on in the Middle East over the last few days:
In Egypt, President Mohammed Morsi has appropriated all ruling powers for himself, crowning himself de facto dictator of Egypt. Today Egypt’s High Court suspended all its sessions after supporters of President Mohamed Morsi surrounded the building and blocked judges from entering.
To Israel’s east, the previously stable regime of Jordanian King Abdullah is starting to wobble with unprecedented anti-regime demonstrations at the weekend in Amman.
And most dangerously, over to our north, the civil war in Syria is reaching epic proportions, with dozens killed in car bombs; the internet temporarily cut off; Syrian shelling of a Turkish town, and now, most ominously of all, the threat of chemical weapons being prepared and used by Bashar Assad’s regime against the rebels.
However, to read the overwrought headlines of the last day or two, one would think that new housing for Israelis in the environs of Jerusalem (including in the E1 corridor that connects Jerusalem to Ma’aleh Adumim), is the absolutely worst thing that could possibly happen in the Middle East, and these Jewish houses are going to be the tipping point that will push the entire Middle East into a massive conflagration.
In fact, according to the American Administration and at least 5 European countries, this decision (and presumably the follow up decision by the Jerusalem municipality to fast-track housing in Har Homa plus a brand new neigbourhood) by Israel was indeed one of the most egregious acts to have taken place in the Middle East in recent days, judging by their furious (and I would add, exaggerated) reactions.
Britain, France and Sweden have summoned the Israeli Ambassadors for a dressing down following the Israeli announcement of new building in Jewish communities around Jerusalem (otherwise known as “settlements”):
The foreign ministries of France, Britain and Sweden on Monday summoned and sharply rebuked the Israeli ambassadors to their countries, following a series of steps taken by Israel in response to the Palestinian move to receive nonmember observer state status at the United Nations. An Israeli official quoted by Israel Radio said the tone of the rebukes was “harsh and very unpleasant.”
“We deplore the recent Israeli government decision to build 3,000 new housing units and unfreeze development in the E1 block. This threatens the viability of the two-state solution,” the spokesman said. “Any decision about any other measures the UK might take will depend on the outcome of our discussions with the Israeli government and with international partners including the US and European Union.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the administration was calling on Israel to reconsider the plan and urged restraint.
“We urge Israeli leaders to reconsider these unilateral decisions and exercise restraint as these actions are counterproductive and make it harder to resume direct negotiations to achieve a two state solution,” he said.
The US State Department said it “opposes all unilateral actions, including West Bank settlement activity and housing construction in East Jerusalem.” In a statement by Mark C. Toner, Washington stated the policy “includes building in the E1 area as this area is particularly sensitive and construction there would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution.”
Elsewhere in Europe, Germany and Russia joined the chorus of condemnations, with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeting a steady stream of denunciations.
It had even be mooted in Britain at one point to withdraw their Ambassador from Israel, although that idea was eventually discarded as “grandstanding”.
As for the US, the State Department said that Israel’s announcement “complicates peace efforts” to reach a two-state solution – as if there any actual negotiations going on at the moment.
And US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had the chutzpah to declare that Israel “is lacking in generosity and empathy for the oppressed Palestinians”. This to the people who provide medical care, free electricity and water and thousands of tons of goods every day to those who try to kill them, who withdrew from territory only to see it become a launching pad for missiles, who froze construction in its heartland only to see the gesture ignored. Yeah, we’re the ones who lack empathy. Mrs. Clinton, have you looked in a mirror lately?
The Israelis though did not take these diplomatic dressing-downs lying down. As Yisrael Hayom says, what did the world think would happen after Israel received so little support at the UN during the vote on Palestinian statehood?
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Sunday that in response to the U.N. move, he planned to delay the transfer of 450 million shekels ($118 million) in tax money Israel had collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
“The provocation is a Palestinian provocation, an effort to advance the establishment of a [Palestinian] state without recognizing Israel, without demilitarizing and without proper security arrangements,” Steinitz said at the cabinet meeting. “We warned that we would respond. I do not plan to transfer funds this month. I will subtract the sum from their debts.”
In regard to the decision to approve settlement construction, Steinitz said, “We told the Americans that if the Palestinians went to the U.N. there would be a response.”
It was also decided to advance the E1 plan, which aims to separate the West Bank from Jerusalem by creating a physical link between the town of Maaleh Adumim in the east and the neighborhoods of northern Jerusalem. This plan includes the construction of 1,000 additional housing units.
Washington has long condemned the E1 plan, devised in 1995, as effectively sabotaging any prospect of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. According to a New York Times article published Saturday, Israel only gave the U.S. “a few hours’ notice of the plan,” sparking outrage. In the past, the main clashes between U.S. President Barack Obama and Netanyahu have been over construction in Jewish settlements.
Speaking at the Saban Forum in Washington on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slammed Israel’s decision, saying “These activities set back the cause of a negotiated peace.”
However, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told his colleagues in the American administration over the weekend that such a response on behalf of the Israeli government was to be expected, Israel Radio reported.
According to Netanyahu’s close associates, the construction push does not violate any agreement with the American administration. The officials declined to detail the exact location of the planned construction, but confirmed that it would be within existing settlement blocs, Israel Radio reported.
Meanwhile, Housing Minister Ariel Atias (Shas) defended the government’s decision on Sunday, telling Israel Radio that it would be futile to freeze settlement construction while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas waged a delegitimization campaign against Israel. He recalled Abbas’ refusal to resume peace talks despite a 10-month Israeli construction freeze back in 2010, adding that his ministry was committed to increasing the available housing across the country.
Returning to the crux of the international outrage, what is this E-1 Corridor and where is it? The Jerusalem Post’s editorial from yesterday expands:
the decision to move ahead with building in areas that a broad majority of Israelis expect to be a part of any future Jewish state – even after a two-state solution is implemented – is perfectly in line with our country’s interests.
Even the decision to authorize zoning and planning for E1 follows in the footsteps of a long chain of governments – both left wing and right wing.
In October 1994, while in the midst of hammering out the Oslo Accords, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin declared that a “united Jerusalem” would include Ma’aleh Adumim as the capital of Israel under Israel sovereignty. As part of the effort to make sure Ma’aleh Adumim remained an integral part of a “united Jerusalem,” Rabin provided then-mayor Benny Kashriel with annexation documents for the E1 area –a strip of land that connects the capital with Ma’aleh Adumim.
As prime minister in 1996, Shimon Peres reaffirmed the government’s position that Israel will demand applying Israeli sovereignty over Ma’aleh Adumim in the framework of a permanent peace agreement. Dovish politician and co-author of the Geneva Initiative, Yossi Beilin, supported annexing Ma’aleh Adumim. And the 2000 Clinton Parameters called for Israel to be compensated for the partitioning of Jerusalem by annexing Ma’aleh Adumim.
During the 2008 Annapolis negotiations, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni demanded that Ma’aleh Adumim remain a part of Israel. And Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s declaration Sunday ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting that “the State of Israel will continue to build in Jerusalem and in all the places on the state’s strategic map” is a continuation of the political traditional that views control over E1 as a cardinal Israeli interest.
Consecutive governments on the Left and on the Right have understood the strategic importance of maintaining control over Ma’aleh Adumim, as well as E1. Without control over E1, Palestinian building could cut off Ma’aleh Adumim – a city with a population of 40,000 – from the capital; it could also undermine Israel’s access to the Jerusalem-Jericho road, of critical strategic importance for transport of troops and equipment from Jerusalem eastward and northward via the Jordan Rift Valley.
And despite claims to the contrary, building in E1 would not necessarily undermine the contiguity of a future Palestinian state. An access road could easily allow Palestinian traffic from the south and north to pass east of Ma’aleh Adumim and continue northward or southward.
While the timing of our government’s announcement might result in negative diplomatic repercussions, building in Jerusalem and E1 protects integral Israeli interests recognized and protected by both left-wing and right-wing governments for well over a decade.
Honest Reporting adds (together with a useful map for comparison):
The patch of land the world’s fixated on today is roughly 4.5 square miles adjacent to Jerusalem and Maale Adumim. There’s no fancy name to the place. It’s simply known by the bureaucratic moniker, E1.
Developing E1 doesn’t divide the West Bank in two. It doesn’t wreck the contiguity of a future Palestinian state. Even if Israel does move forward with these plans (and this isn’t the first time over the years that E1 bureaucracy made news and was then put on hold), the remaining land available to the Palestinians will still leave them with territorial contiguity.
The Palestinian waistline — between Maale Adumim and the Dead Sea, is roughly 15 km wide. That’s a corridor no different than the Israeli waistline. Indeed, that has never caused a problem of Israeli territorial contiguity.
One last item which really expresses my own thoughts so perfectly is a blog-post in the Times of Israel by Paula Stern (who also blogs at the excellent A Soldier’s Mother blog), who wrote “E-1 is a mountain, not a statement“:
what we have is a mountain – not a very tall one, smaller even than the ones next to it on three sides. That’s all E1 is – a mountain. It is barren, but for a road that snakes its way up to a midpoint where a large police station has been built. No one lives there – no one has. Some trees, a lot of rocks, a traffic circle at the base – that’s all.
And the history of this small piece of land? Like much of what some refer to as “the West Bank,” the land was once part of the Ottoman Empire – there were no villages, no homes, no dwellings. There’s no water there. Nothing. Sheep and goats sometimes graze on the lower areas of the hills, but that’s about it. When The Ottomans were replaced by the British, and still nothing but the camels and the sheep and the goats and, perhaps, an occasional ground hog traversed the land.
In the 1920s, England cut off 2/3 of the land that was called Palestine and gave it to the Hashemites – and thus Jordan was born. The remaining 1/3 was ruled by the British until 1947, including that land that today we call E1. In 1948, the Arabs chose war over peace, death over life. They attacked and lost – but they got E1 – the barren land between Jerusalem’s eastern border and the west bank of the Jordan River. And they got the West Bank and for 19 years, they did not create an independent Palestinian State.
In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization was founded to…to…well, if you believe their lies, it was created to fight the occupation that began in 1967 – what an incredible example of foresight, apparently.
In 1967, it was clear that Egypt and Syria were preparing for war – the signs were all there; [...] They attacked – as they had in 1948 and the result was the same – they lost.
This time, E1 came into our hands. State-owned under the Turks; state-owned under the Jordanians, and now state-owned under Israel. Never the home of Palestinians; never an independent nation. No villages there, no buildings but for the one we built a few years ago…and the ones we will now build.
There is no bisecting, no blocking, no break in the passage. If you took the time to see the land, you would understand nothing because there is nothing there to understand. It is not an obstacle to peace. It is just a mountain, soon to be green and developed.
That is the history of E1, except for one huge point that the world forgets. Before the Jordanians, before the British, before the Ottomans, before the Romans…the land was, as it is today – ours. It was the ancient land of Israel; it is the modern land of Israel.
Read it all. There’s so much more.
And next time the world accuses Israel of disproportionate responses, let us remind the world of theirs – kicking up such a huge diplomatic storm over some housing in an area which has always been acknowledged will remain within Israeli territory while thousands of Arabs are being killed not a few hundred miles away by their own countrymen, while missiles are being shot across international borders and while chemical weapons are even now being prepared by a murderous regime.