Scarcely a day after the UN General Assembly voted to name Palestine a state, and Israeli officials said they would not mete out a punishment for their neighbor's chutzpah, the punishment came.
The government approved construction of 3,000 housing units in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and made reference to an especially sensitive area called E1, between East Jerusalem and the desert city of Maale Adumim. Maale Adumim is Israel's largest "settlement" with close to 40,000 residents.
E1 has been mentioned several times as a place of obvious settlement, to link Maale Adumim more firmly to Israel, but has always brought forth the loudest squawks from the United States and our other minders. The claim is that settlement in E1, along with Maale Adumim, would impose a imposing divide between the major towns of the northern and southern West Bank. No longer would it be easy for Palestinians to create links between Ramallah, Nablus and other towns in the north to Bethlehem, Hebron and other places in the south.
The squawks were not long in coming, but it is hard to tell how serious they are this time. With the United States miffed at Palestinians for going ahead with the UN bid, the comment from the US National Security Council was a modest, "We reiterate our longstanding opposition to settlements . . . ."
The State Department was even more modest.
"In the context of the move in New York. . . you had a risk of action causing reaction. So you know, in the context of this, we're going to be evenhanded in saying we don't want to see provocative action. Instead, we want to see the parties focused on coming back to the table without preconditions."
Only a couple of days from Palestine's UN victory and a day from Israel's initial retaliation, it remains possible that there is nothing more than bluster in both moves. If Palestine has a state, it is without borders, recognition from the two countries most important (Israel and the US), and any capacity to acquire significant arms or any other imports--including food, fuel, and electricity--without Israel's cooperation.
Israel's "retaliation" remains only on paper. What was done involves government approval of a planning process, which is likely to take months to complete even if it goes forward with all the vigor possible. It will be even longer before the rumble of bulldozers and other construction activity. One can expect that the units designated for neighborhoods of East Jerusalem are most likely to go ahead. Building in its capital represents policy of high importance for Israeli Jews of virtually all political parties. Such construction has been postponed only under the most intense of international pressure which does not seem to be in the cards at this point.
The symbolism of Israel's decision is in the number 3,000. However, the majority of those units are meant for neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the major settlement blocs of Maale Adumim and Ariel, and areas of the West Bank on Israel's side of the security barrier.
E1 is another story. We may not see any signs of construction there unless the Palestinians move beyond the symbolism of UN granted statehood.
Most concerning to Israel is the prospect of Palestinians trying their hand as a state enabled to bring cases in international courts. If Mahmoud Abbas takes seriously the expressions he included in his UN speech and formally accuses ranking Israelis of war crimes and ethnic cleansing, those Israelis would have to watch out where they travel out of concern for being picked up on international warrants. Israeli diplomats will be working to assure military and political officials' immunity from such actions, but the very threat may cause the bulldozers to prepare the ground for construction in E1.
That, in turn, may feed into an escalation that produces actual indictments in international courts, counter-suits by Israel against Palestinians in the same courts, intifada #3, and whatever comes in their wake.
We can expect hyperbolic threats from both Palestinians and Israelis. Already one well placed Likudnik, Tzachi Hanegbi, has talked about retaliating for the UN action with thousands more apartments in the West Bank. Individual Palestinians express their certainty about using international courts against Israel. The remains of Yassir Arafat have gone to France to be tested for poisoning. Palestinians are sure he was killed, that Israel did it, and that an international court will decide against those guilty.
Even if Israel does build in E1, it needn't curtail the prospects of a Palestinian state. Details of terrain and existing construction complicate any simple assertions of what is desirable or possible.
The Palestinians could build a road from Ramallah to Beitlehem that would avoid actual construction and tunnel under parts of an Israeli settlement. It would be on the model of Israel's road that twists and turns, and employs tunnels to avoid Palestinian settlements on the route from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion.
Arab construction is already encroaching on the roads from Jerusalem to Maale Adumim, leading Israelis to promote construction to safeguard Maale Adumim's connection with Israel
There remains the knotty question as to how important are the settlements generally as frustrations for the peace process. Palestinian leaders rejected offers to set the boundaries of a Palestinian state, and presumably put an end to settlement activity within those boundaries under Prime Minister Barak in 2000 and again under Prime Minister Olmert in 2007. Disputes within the Fatah leadership and sharper disputes between Fatah, Hamas, and factions even more extreme lead many Israelis to distrust Palestinians' claims of seeking a peace agreement that is final and binding.
Israeli optimists--including politicians to the left of the present government--are saying that the Palestine's recognition by the UN provides an opportunity to agree on one or another set of details that have been circulating at least since the Oslo Accords of 1993. Israelis who see an opportunity for accommodation urge the start of negotiations with both sides ratcheting down their preconditions. Opponents of settlement see their expansions as ultimately threatening Israel by adding to Muslim animosity, and limiting the support possible from Western governments.
Other Israelis say that the Palestinians' pursuit of statehood via the UN rather than via negotiations with Israel proves that Oslo is dead. Those who distrust Palestinians and bristle at the support given them by a large majority of the world's countries urge an escalated land-grab throughout the West Bank. The preoccupation of Syria, Egypt, and other Arab countries with their domestic problems may provide a window of opportunity.
Western governments, including that of Barack Obama, may have tired of providing anything more than lip service to Palestine.
Israel's impending election, the tilt to the left in Labor Party's primary, two new centrists parties nipping at the moderate wing of Likud, and competition from the right in the shape of the resurgent settler-religious party Jewish Home may be involved in those 3,000 new housing units.
So far Israel's action is modest, not comparable to the Begin government's attack on Iraq's nuclear facilities three weeks in advance of the 1981 election. Israelis are still arguing if that attack, or its timing, was politically motivated.
Need we say the name of Iran? A confrontation there, with or without the United States and others, may dwarf the issue of E 1 or any other other settlement activity.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem