Is Netanyahu Trying to Make the Two-State Option an Impossibility?

The go-ahead on the E1 settlements could make a contiguous Palestinian West Bank a practical impossibility--and with it, a viable two-state solution to the decades long impasse.

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Abir Sultan / Pool / Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Nov. 13, 2011

Unless you’re actually driving around the West Bank — sailing down the freeways Israel has built atop Palestinian land or steering down the two-lane roads etched into the hillsides topped with more than 200 subdivisions, little bits of California atop stone hills straight from Bible story books — it’s difficult to appreciate the reality of what Israel calls its “settlement project.” But a geography specialist named Danny Seidemann found a vivid point of reference for the new part of it Israel announced over the weekend: “The doomsday settlement.”

If the U.N. has moved to declare Palestine is a state, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu then has a few things to say — and do — about that. The 1.6 million Palestinians living on the Gaza Strip are already separated by 40 km (25 miles) from the 2.4 million on the West Bank. The project Netanyahu’s government began moving forward on Friday would cut the West Bank itself in half, dividing its north from its south while barricading off a bit of Jerusalem in the bargain, and with it, in all likelihood, the plans to name the Arab sections of the city as Palestine’s capital. “The impact,” says Seidemann, whom foreign embassies routinely consult as an expert on settlements and the boundaries of the contentious city, “is basically the creation of facts on the ground that would make the two-state solution dead. It’s not only a game changer, it’s a game ender.”

The reaction to Netanyahu’s bold move, both in Israel and abroad, was swift and negative. Britain and France summoned Israel’s ambassadors to hear protests, and reportedly were considering ordering their own envoys home, a move without precedent. Washington condemned the move, which came just hours after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice forcefully delivered a speech of solidarity with the Jewish state on the floor of the General Assembly.

In Israel, both the right and left wing of the Hebrew press asked why, after losing the U.N. vote 138 to 9, an Israeli government would announce a move sure to further its international isolation. (Technically, the way Palestine is run hasn’t changed because of the vote; the Palestinian Authority simply has a different status — which happens to have the word state in it — within the international organization, with a few new legal prerogatives.) In Ma’ariv, the conservative columnist Ben-Dror Yemini called Netanyahu’s move “Pavlovian” and wrote, “Rather than thank the American administration for its amazing support on Thursday at the U.N. vote, the slap in the face came on Friday with the announcement of the construction of thousands of additional housing units.” In Yedioth Ahronoth, Nahum Barnea reported from the Saban Forum, a Washington, D.C., gathering of prominent Israeli and Americans in which the rules constrain attendees from saying who said what. The gist of a speech by a prominent American politician (identified in the same paper the next day as Obama’s former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel) was: “You Israelis are ingrates. You’ve screwed yourselves.” Barnea’s conclusion: “Something bad has happened over the years to the production line in Israeli politics.”

The “doomsday settlement” would be built on a section of land labeled E1 on planning maps of Jerusalem and its surroundings. The land is currently a park — the visually striking western slope of a hillside leading toward the Jordan Valley and a massive Jewish settlement already in place, Ma’ale Adumim. All the land is Palestinian, but Israel has occupied it since 1967, and by filling it with Jewish housing would make it impossible to travel from, say, Ramallah to Hebron. On maps, what looks like open space to the east is in fact the depths of the Jordan Valley, hundreds of meters below sea level where the Dead Sea lies.

“The administration warned Netanyahu publicly last Friday, ‘Please don’t do it,’’’ Seidemann says, who goes on to describe the Israeli Prime Minister’s decision to ignore the advice as consciously flagrant.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas returned from New York City to cheers. “We are now a state,” he told a throng of 3,000 loyalists in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “The world is with us, and history is with us, God is with us, and the future is ours.” The new paradigm was displayed down the length of a nearby building, where a banner unfurled in hazard yellow read, in English, Arabic and Hebrew: “Warning! This Is Illegally Occupied Land. State of Palestine, 29/11/2012.”

“Let me just say that we are standing at a very big Palestinian wedding,” said a delighted Talal J’bara, 65. “It is the first time the world recognizes who we are and that we even exist.”

“The most important thing now is that our leaders do whatever it takes to stop the expansion of the settlements and all of Israel’s wrongdoing,” said Khateem Khatab, a retiree who had traveled from Jerusalem to Ramallah for the celebratory rally. “Negotiations will only prevail once the Israelis stop all their provocations against the Palestinian people and their land.” (Netanyahu also announced Israel would hold back more than $100 million in tax revenues owed to the Palestinian Authority, a punishment that Washington also had urged Israel to forgo. )

Abbas framed the bid for statehood as a last-ditch effort to revive negotiations begun almost 20 years ago aimed at creating a Palestinian state beside Israel, roughly on the border that separated the two populations until 1967, when Israeli forces defeated Arab armies and began occupying the West Bank and Gaza. But as the negotiations dragged on, Israel continued settling its people on the land — they now number 500,000, including neighborhoods built in East Jerusalem.

Having forsworn violent resistance, Abbas argued that diplomatic leverage was the only kind available to check Israel’s military and other advantages. The U.N. vote naming Palestine a nonmember state opens the door to the International Criminal Court, where individual Israelis could be charged for violations of war crimes, a threat Abbas says he will hold in abeyance for now. A period of sorting and settling is likely underway. Though both sides say they are wiling to return to negotiations, each are likely to be addressing mostly their own constituencies for the next few months. Netanyahu is facing an election set for Jan. 22, a prospect that Seidemann and others say may help account for his decision to brandish E1 — it plays to the rightist and settler constituencies that have recently all but overwhelmed his Likud party. Abbas, meanwhile, is under new pressure to find a way to reconcile with Hamas, the militant Islamist group that governs Gaza, and bring the two Palestinian territories under a unified administration, especially now that they’re nominally a state.

But in a conflict that’s finally, ultimately, about land, the lessons of November were not lost on Palestinians.

Hamas launched 1,300 missiles into Israel during the military offensive aimed at stopping the launches, and in return won territorial concessions. Under the terms of the cease-fire brokered by Egypt, Gaza’s fishermen doubled the distance they can travel from shore before encountering Israeli gunboats, and Palestinian farmers won access to the one-third of the enclave’s arable land that abuts the border fence with Israel proper. A week later, Abbas, who heads the secular Fatah party, won the lopsided vote at the U.N., and Israel’s response was to appropriate another chunk of the West Bank for its own use. “We have one goal, and to be honest, it doesn’t matter whether it is Fatah or Hamas, the most important thing is that we achieve our freedom,” says Manar Fathi, 40, at the Ramallah rally. “As long as the world is with us, I don’t think we even care about what Israel is and what they can do to us.”

— With reporting from Rami Nazzal / Ramallah