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(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin broke his usual silence on diplomatic matters to deliver a sharp warning Monday to US President Barack Obama that any policy of halting construction in Ma'aleh Adumim could lead to a failure of the peace process.
Rivlin and Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) were visiting the suburban settlement east of the capital to view firsthand building projects frozen under US pressure.
"Without Ma'aleh Adumim and without the construction in E-1 and a continuous Jerusalem territory, there will not be peace, but there will be a division of Jerusalem, which will intensify the conflict," said Rivlin. "We have had disagreements with the US, but [former president George W.] Bush gave an explicit and valid letter saying that Ma'aleh Adumim, with other parts of Israel, will be areas where Israel can continue to be based."
Rivlin and Yishai visited E-1, a mostly empty area of 12 sq.km. in Ma'aleh Adumim that borders on Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood to the west, as well as a site within the built-up part of Ma'aleh Adumim where they saw the encroachment of a Beduin encampment hundreds of meters away from some of the city's most expensive private homes.
Ma'aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel said that new building in the city was completely stopped, including a freeze on a permit for hundreds of units in the northeast Nofei Sela neighborhood. Kashriel expressed concern regarding the impact of American pressure to stop building throughout the West Bank on the future of his city.
The municipality has plans to build 3,500 apartments in E-1, also known as Mevaseret Adumim, but has yet to receive a permit despite promises in the past from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that he supported the project.
The city has also not received a final permit for the 450-unit project in Nofei Sela, which was frozen by the Olmert government, although all the infrastructure for those units is already in place.
There are some 450 apartment units in Ma'aleh Adumim which are under construction. But according to a city spokesman, new permits would be needed before any other building could take place.
Netanyahu has not approved a single building project in a West Bank settlement since taking office on March 31.
Rivlin, who keeps a map of the Ma'aleh Adumim area hanging in his Knesset office, said that "the struggle for Jerusalem begins in Ma'aleh Adumim. The building within Ma'aleh Adumim and in E-1 is part of a national consensus on security and strategy. Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim are part of the same unit. Cutting off Ma'aleh Adumim from Jerusalem would put Ma'aleh Adumim in a situation similar to that of Mount Scopus between the years 1948 and 1967."
During that period, Mount Scopus - one of the closest Jerusalem neighborhoods to Ma'aleh Adumim - was an isolated encampment, surrounded by Jordanian forces and cut off from the remainder of the capital.
"It's not just me who is saying this," said Rivlin. "Then-prime minister Ehud Barak told that to me in 2001, as did former defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezar."
Rivlin called on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to adopt an "uncompromising policy toward the Americans."
"An Israeli concession on the issue of building within Ma'aleh Adumim is tantamount to Israeli concession on the 'Bush Letter' that recognized Israel's right to build in settlement blocs. The Americans must understand that 'drying out' Ma'aleh Adumim constitutes a danger to Jerusalem's future," he said.
Yishai added that Israel would continue to build in E-1, and even if the Americans don't agree at first, they will eventually get the message.
"We can continue to try and convince them, but if we don't succeed, and this has happened in the past, Israel must continue to do what it believes in," he said. "There will be no other way. The Americans will in the end understand that it is based on the commitment of the previous [US] administration and cannot be ignored. It's existential for us, it's a national security issue, it's right, correct and necessary."
During the meeting in the Ma'aleh Adumim town hall that preceded the tour, residents complained to Rivlin and Yishai about the building freeze, arguing that the city is getting older, and without more construction, their children will not be able to live close to their parents when they grow up. Two preschools and an elementary school had recently been closed, "because of a continued decline among the young generation in the city," they said.
Kashriel added that families will not be able to bring elderly parents, many of whom live in Jerusalem, to join their families as they age and need more daily assistance.
Meretz chairman Haim Oron slammed the E-1 tour, saying it was "another move in the decline of the government's policy into a confrontation with the entire world, and first and foremost, with the US."
"It's well known that Eli Yishai is prepared to be recruited at the whim of the extreme Right, but Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin must not use his post to advance his personal political positions," Oron said.
A State Department spokesman did not have an immediate reaction to the specifics of Rivlin's comments.
However, a State Department official stressed, "As we've said repeatedly, our current focus is to create the context for negotiations to resume, by asking all parties to take responsibility for peace."
"For the Israelis, that means a stop to settlements, as they've committed to do under the road map," he said.
He added that the Arab states need to take steps toward normalization and the Palestinians need to make further efforts at security reform as part of that process.
Tovah Lazaroff and Hilary Leila Kreiger contributed to this report.