Just when we thought Israel and Hamas took a leap towards peace with their ceasefire agreement, another decision shoves them two steps back.
Last week, the United Nations General Assembly voted to grant Palestinians non-member observer status, and not surprisingly, the Netanyahu administration wasn't pleased with how the vote went. It responded by retaliating.
On Friday, the Israeli government announced that it will not only withhold $120 million worth of funds from Palestine, but also construct 3,000 new housing units just east of East Jerusalem, in an area known as the E-1 corridor.
Although this plan doesn't split the West Bank in half, it is an aggressive move on Israel's part, toward both the Palestinians and the international community seeking peace between the two parties, and supporting (with the exception of the U.S., Canada, and a handful of other states) Palestinian statehood.
Some argue that the construction of settlements isn't a new or unexpected phenomenon and therefore it is not punishment for the UN's vote. However, the plan's inclusion of the controversial E-1 area and the timing of the announcement suggest otherwise. Back in 2009, international pressure halted Israel's plans to build in this area, so the reintroduction of the project at this particular time shows defiance of the vote. In addition, the selection of the E-1 corridor further suggests retaliation as construction in that area would inevitable threaten the possibility of a two-state solution for two main reasons: One, for a two-state solution to work, Palestine asks for Israel to hand over East Jerusalem so it can become the capital in a Palestinian state. Will Israel accede to this condition? Probably not. However, by constructing settlements that connect the Jewish settlement, Ma'ale Adumim, to Jerusalem, Israel eliminates even the possibility of this option. The E-1 development plan allows Israel to start swallowing up East Jerusalem and to take the first step towards preventing it from connecting with Ramallah (the economic and political headquarters of the Palestinian Authority), which is not ok with Palestine. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas even says of the territory, "E1 is a red line that cannot be crossed."
Secondly, Israel's decision is one of the first proactive efforts to connect established settlements together with the bulk of the country. Previous settlements have been, for the most part, scattered independently in the West Bank, but last Friday's announcement comes across almost as if Israel is hinting that it has the power to make a beeline for the Jordan River if it wanted. If this actually happens, the two halves of the West Bank would then be effectively cut off from each other, and the possibility of Palestinian statehood becomes increasingly unlikely. After all, ignoring all the religious, political, and territorial disputes for a moment, the logistics of creating a Palestinian state with both the West Bank and Gaza is already difficult enough. (Let's be honest, Gaza is not the most equipped and self-sustainable area of the world, and Israel might not be all that eager to let Palestinian trucks carrying goods to Gaza just meander freely through the country).
Thus, three disconnected regions would complicate options for peace even further. This setback is Israel's punishment for the UN vote. What we must recognize, however, is that, despite all of the politics, a growing number of those a part of the conflict are getting tired of fighting for a one-state solution. In 2007, 46.7% of Palestinians favored a two-state solution, compared to about 52% to 54% in 2011. Similarly, in 2010, 30% of Israelis supported a two-state solution, compared to 65% the following year. These rising numbers indicate that it's time to question whether construction of new settlements is a wise decision, and whether it's worth taking two steps backwards from peace.