Just as the Palestinian authority successfully moved for UN recognition as a non-member observer state, Israel moved for a game-changing settlement expansion.
Late in November, the Palestinian Authority's bid to become a “non-member observer state” in the UN was overwhelmingly accepted, with 138 of the world's countries voting for the move and just 9 opposing. This move was seen by the Israeli government as “pure diplomatic terror” , and as history has shown time after time: Israel must respond harshly for every terrorist act.
Thus, the following day after his bitter defeat at the UN assembly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Israel to commence with the building of 3,000 new units in West Bank settlements, including the long frozen East-1 (E-1) area, between East Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumim, despite heavy international pressure on this controversial response.
So what exactly is this E-1 place, and why is it so controversial?
E-1 is the 12 square kilometer area stretching from the edges of East Jerusalem up until the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, well inside the West Bank. Very few people actually reside in this area, although a 2,300 strong Bedouin community is planned to be expelled from the ground. But unlike other settlement disputes in the past, this time the controversy is not about population, but territorial contentiousness, and the future of the proposed Palestinian state. The devil, as they say, lies in the details.
East Jerusalem, widely viewed as the future capital city of the proposed Palestinian state, consists of some 208,000 Arab residents and about 195,000 Jewish ones. Any potential agreement between Israel and Palestine must include resolution to the East Jerusalem question, and that has been a primary demand by the Palestinian side for over a decade now. However, Arab neighborhoods and villages outnumber Jewish ones by far, and Jewish residents of East Jerusalem usually stay within neighborhoods such as the French Hill, Pisgat Ze'ev and East Talpiyot; while Arab villages are in abundance. The E-1 area, alongside Ma'ale Adumim and Pisgat Ze'ev, surrounds this territory, and will virtually isolate these 200,000 Palestinians from any future West Bank-based Palestinian state. Moreover, these new building plans will “poke a finger” in the eye of the West Bank, creating a barrier between the northern part (Nablus, Ramallah, Jenin and Jericho) and the southern part (Bethlehem and Hebron) – this will prove to be yet another logistic obstacle in any future Two States-based solution (of which Netanyahu is a self-proclaimed advocate.So if it's such a controversial move, why is Netanyahu pushing for it?
Most would argue it is a “diplomatic price tag”, in response for the “diplomatic terrorism” by the Palestinian Authority. This is a very simplistic and in my opinion, uneducated view of the conflict and Israeli politics. Netanyahu is no fool and he knows exactly what this move means. He knows that the Palestinian UN move has achieved them nothing but a powerless title. He knows the new building plans will isolate Israel even from it's very few remaining allies out in the world. He knows the move holds grave demographic and diplomatic consequences, and that it could potentially be a final blow in any future two state solution. He knows it could lead, sometime in the not-so-distant future, to a situation in which Israel would have to choose – full-on Apartheid, or a bi-national state risking the Jewish majority in Israel.
But he also knows he is in great political danger in the upcoming January elections. Netanyahu came to office using the security and Palestinian cards before – and succeeded twice in 1996 and 2009. And while the Israeli left wing is small, weak and divided, the extreme right is a rising in power, both within his own party (with Moshe Feiglin's upcoming and inevitable debut in the Knesset ) and out (with Naftali Bennet's new political rising-star status.
He sees no danger from his left wing, with his closest rival Shelly Yachimovich surprisingly quiet on the subject, but over on the right side of Netanyahu, Bennet is doing overwhelmingly well in the polls and may collect as much as 15 Knesset seats for his party, potentially making Habayit Hayehudi the third largest party in the Knesset.
This requires the prime minister to take another step to the right of the political spectrum. If he wants to recuperate some votes from Bennet and the right wing voters, he needs to match himself to that standard.
It has happened before in both of his terms, most recently with the pressure he tried to apply on the U.S. government to aid in attacking Iran's nuclear program. Netanyahu and Ehud Barak pressed hard, pumped the Israeli public with fear-mongering warnings and doomsday-scenarios, yet the U.S. did not fold, and Netanyahu gained the political boost he needed at home, while not involving Israel in direct war. In my opinion, this is exactly what he's trying to do now – plan a reckless and potentially destructive settlement expansion, fend off international pressure to make himself look "uncompromising" and "doing the best for Israel's interests", then retreat after the elections and hope the public won't remember him this fact in eight years time, when he will be eligible to run for PM again.