It’s no accident that right-wing lawmakers opened their campaign Monday to annex the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement the morning after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a regional peace process toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What better way to stop such a process dead in its tracks than to impose sovereignty on a Jewish city, which Palestinians claim is critical for the viability of their future state? Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked minced no words on Tuesday when she bluntly stated that her Bayit Yehudi Party, which has long held that all of the West Bank’s Area C should be annexed, is bent on preventing the creation of a Palestinian state.
“As long as we are in the government, there won’t be a Palestinian state, settlements won’t be evacuated and no territory will be turned over the enemy,” Shaked said as she toured the Binyamin area of the West Bank with settlement leader Avi Ro’eh.
“Today it is clearer than ever that the Bayit Yehudi Party is the only party that fights on behalf of the settlements and against the creation of a Hamastan and an ISISstan,” Shaked said.
So, Shaked and her party have thrown their weight behind a legislative drive to annex Ma’aleh Adumim, headed by the Land for Israel Caucus.
Its chairmen, MKs Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) and Yoav Kisch (Likud), have submitted legislation, called the “Ma’aleh Adumim bill,” to annex the city by fully applying Israeli law to it.
In promising to push for its passage, the party issued an immediate challenge to Netanyahu, who has persistently rejected annexation attempts anywhere in Judea and Samaria.
In doing so, the lawmakers argued, they were merely fulling the democratic will of the Israeli public. With the slogan “Ma’aleh Adumim first,” they hope that if they are successful in this bid, they will then be able to annex all of Area C – a move that has long been part of the Bayit Yehudi platform.
This government is the most nationalist one to rule in Israeli history, Smotrich said. It was elected by people who want it to promote a nationalist agenda, he added.
To prove that as elected officials they were simply calling for the government to institute the people’s will, they solicited a poll from the research institute Midgam, which showed that 78 percent of Jewish Israelis believe Ma’aleh Adumim should be annexed.
A slightly lesser number, 70%, said they would risk international ire to do so.
The numbers speak for themselves and they show that “we are in the heart of Israel consensus,” Ma’aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel said.
Smotrich added, “Mr. Prime Minister, there are no more excuses, its time to apply sovereignty.”
The application of sovereignty is not a new concept for Israel, he said. It imposed Israeli law on east Jerusalem in 1980, and on the Golan in 1981, and could therefore do so again with Ma’aleh Adumim, Smotrich said.
But in 1980, there was no peace process, not with the Syrians and not with the Palestinians, and the thought of one seemed like a pipe dream even though a peace deal had been reached with Egypt.
The Palestinians did not have a government and Israel had full military and civilian control over all of the West Bank.
But Israel has been in the midst of a peace process of one sort or another for the last 23 years, and as such is obligated to work toward the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
This obligation holds, whether negotiations are active or inactive.
Along the way, Israelis and Palestinians have argued over the definition of what it means to bound to the notion of viability and no where, has that argument been more stiff than around the issue of settlement building.
Israel believes that it can make a peace deal with the Palestinians while retaining some portions of Area C, where all the Israeli settlements are located.
It has understood in principle that it may have to evacuate some settlements, and in fact it demolished 25 of them in 2005, but it believes it will be able to hold the bulk of them, particularly in large blocs of population centers such as Ma’aleh Adumim.
In the interim, until a peace agreement is reached, it holds that it can continue to build, particularly in the blocs.
The Palestinians argue that Israel must withdraw from all of the West Bank and that continued settlement building shows a lack of faith to that basic premise.
As time has marched on and the settlement population is pushing toward the 400,000 mark, Palestinians argue that such construction is irreversible and in some cases, makes their future state nonviable.
There are few spots in the West Bank that worry Palestinian more than Ma’aleh Adumim, particularly given plans to vastly expand the city by 3,500 units in an unbuilt area known as E1.
For Israel the Jewish city, the third largest in the West Bank, with over 37,4000 people, is strategically placed just outside of Jerusalem, so that it could prevent the division of the capital in any future peace deal.
On the map, the pattern of Palestinian and Jewish communities in that area make for a checker board pattern that prevents growth for both peoples.
The Palestinians have successfully argued before the international community and the US, that contiguous Palestinian development in that area, is vital for the viability of their state.
Any argument as to how and why Israel should keep Ma’aleh Adumim is an non-starter in their eyes.
Israelis tend to gloss over Ma’aleh Adumim’s tenuous status in the international arena, preferring to believe that the city, lies within “consensus” meaning that everyone understands that it would one day be part of Israel’s permanent borders.
Unlike the right-wing lawmakers, many Ma’aleh Adumim supporters do not see their city as stumbling bloc to a Palestinian state, which they believe can be vital, even if their city remains part of Israel in any final-status agreement.
But such broad understanding applies only in Israel.
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon had a phrase he liked to use, when describing why he was not keeping a preelection pledge, “What you see from there, you do not see from here.”
So it is that every Israeli prime minster for the last 23 years, starting with Yitzhak Rabin, has promised Kashriel to authorize building in his city, including in E1, but upon taking office has kept only half the pledge and have left E1 alone – understanding that to do so would be a suicidal move in the world of diplomatic relations.
The only time Netanyahu appeared poised to build in E1 was when the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization voted to accept Palestine as a state in 2011.
Netanyahu saw the act as such a grave breach of the international understandings that a Palestinian state would be created only through a peace process, that he felt empowered to respond with building in E1.
And even then, Netanyahu backed down and the project remained frozen.
But the focus on E1 has masked the overall issue, which is Ma’aleh Adumim itself.
True, all settlements in Judea and Samaria are in a tenuous position because they exist outside the recognized boundaries of Israel and in an area of the country under military rule.
But the status of Ma’aleh Adumim is particularly tenuous, in spite of its size. In the last number of years, Kashriel has felt a growing freeze when it comes to his city, particularly in the area of construction.
Forget E1, Kashriel is having trouble getting permits for building elsewhere, even though he has 1,000 unit project ready to go and another in the pipeline.
In the last six years he has received permits for only 605 homes compared to the 1,601 approvals he was given the previous six years, which is effectively a 62% drop.
If building in Ma’aleh Adumim is hard, one can only imagine the reverberations from annexing it.
The Palestinians would see such an annexation as final proof, of what they already believe, that Israel is only paying lip service to the peace process and is in fact, dead set against the creation of their state.
Not only would it prevent them from coming to the table, it would halt any peace process. It would give Palestinians additional fuel, to sway an international community, which already back them, that a two-state solution at the pre-1967 lines must be imposed and not negotiated.
One Western diplomat said, “annexation would be a terrible step.
We do not want that to happen and there would be a reaction a strong reaction.”
Among the possible consequences could be, US support for UN Security Council resolutions against Israel, particularly given a resolution on the conflict is likely to head to the UNSC in the next seven months.
The EU could impose sanctions on Israel, as some elements in the EU have threatened to do, because annexation could be a momentous enough event so that the consensus votes of 28 states could be obtained.
The lawmakers’ bid to help Kashriel, might be about democracy in the strongest and purest sense of the word.
But unfortunately for the Ma’aleh Adumim mayor, it is also about diplomacy, which is likely to trump here and doom legislative efforts even before they have begun.
Not just because it would be harmful diplomatically, but also because any step with such a great impact remains a powerful weapon in Netanyahu’s arsenal.
The threat of annexation itself is the kind of playing card any Israeli leader would need to hold close to his chest, and use only when he most needed it to counter dangerous unilateral moves from the other side.