Israeli officials are insisting tonight that Israel will continue to "stand by its vital interests" in the face of criticism from Western countries over a decision to advance plans to create 3,000 new homes in areas directly east of Jerusalem.
The announcement was made in the aftermath of a Palestinian diplomatic gambit last week that Palestinian officials described as marking the end to the peace process, which saw the Palestinians secure a U.N. General Assembly vote to upgrade their status to that of a non-member state. The campaign constituted a material breach of the Oslo Accords, under which the Israelis traded functionally irreversible territorial concessions in exchange for Palestinian commitments not to “take any step that will change the status of the West Bank” outside of bilateral negotiations.
Israel announced two decisions in the aftermath of the U.N. vote. First, Jerusalem will withhold a little more than $100 million in tax revenue that Israel has collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, and will transfer the funds to Israeli energy companies to pay down debts owed by the Palestinian Authority. Second, the Israeli government will advance plans to build homes in the so-called E1 corridor that connects Jerusalem to the city of Ma’aleh Adumim, which is a little over 4 miles outside of Jerusalem in the West Bank and where almost 40,000 Israelis live. The announcement does not ensure that construction will actually begin.
The housing development triggered condemnations from the U.S., EU, and other countries, and even now-denied rumors that France and the UK would recall their ambassadors. Critics charged that construction in the E1 corridor would foreclose territorial contiguity between areas the Palestinian reserve for themselves in the West Bank and areas they reserve for themselves in Jerusalem, that it would make negotiations impossible, and that it would endanger bilateral negotiations.
Israeli officials responded strongly to both the substance and the tone of the criticisms. The concerns over contiguity have been held up in particular as almost exactly backwards. Israeli construction in E1 doesn’t preclude contiguity between the West Bank and Jerusalem, as the Israelis have built substantial infrastructure and bypass roads to connect parts of Jerusalem with parts of the West Bank in the absence of routes through E1. In contrast, Palestinian control of E1 actually does cut off Ma’aleh Adumim from the rest of Israel, as there is no parallel infrastructure to maintain Israeli access.
More pointedly, Israeli officials consider Palestinian criticism over construction in E1 and Ma’aleh Adumim to be a pretext for abandoning negotiations. Those areas have since the beginning of the peace process been envisioned as ending up under Israeli sovereign, and Palestinian negotiators have historically been willing to negotiate with Israel as long as Israeli construction was consigned to such areas. Dennis Ross published a map describing Israeli and Palestinian territories codified under the 2000 Clinton parameters, with Ma’aleh Adumim explicitly labeled as Israeli and connected to Jerusalem via the E1 corridor. The terms emerged through secret negotiations mediated by Ross in the months after the collapse of that summer's Camp David negotiations, and understanding under which the territories would remain Israeli was linked to Israeli concessions on Jerusalem.
The disposition of E1 and Ma’aleh Adumim in the Clinton Parameters reflected more than half a decade of Israeli understandings embraced by governments from across the political spectrum. In October 1994 during the beginning of the Oslo Accords, then-Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin declared that a "united Jerusalem" would include Ma’aleh Adumim, and he even provided then-mayor Benny Kashriel with annexation documents for E1. In 1996 then-Labor prime minister Shimon Peres reaffirmed the Israeli government's position that Israel would demand sovereignty over Ma’aleh Adumim and was backed by dovish politician and co-author of the Geneva Initiative, Yossi Beilin. Later, in 2008 then-Kadima prime minister Ehud Olmert and then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni demanded that Ma’aleh Adumim remain a part of Israel.
Israeli officials have expressed particular surprise that European governments, especially, would attempt to blame Jerusalem for stalling the Oslo-based peace process. Last week saw France voting yes and Britain abstaining on the Palestinian statehood resolution, which violated decades of Oslo-linked agreements and which Palestinian officials declared marked the end of the bilateral peace process. The UNGA vote has complicated EU attempts to sway Israel, and analysts have suggested that by declining to oppose the statehood resolution, the Europeans may have squandered valuable diplomatic capital and risked their ability to play constructive roles in the Middle East peace process.