Israeli and American negotiators are currently negotiating “agreed-upon” contours of Israeli settlement activity in Judea and Samaria.
“We want to reach a series of agreed-on principles so as not to return to the Obama period during which there was conflict over every balcony in the territories,” one official in the Prime Minister’s Office said this week.
Reportedly under discussion are a range of limits: limiting construction to current borderlines of built-up settlements; or to the jurisdictional lines of the settlements (which are more expansive); or to the outlines of large settlement blocs such as Maaleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel.
None of these options will be easy to swallow, neither for the right-wing public in Israel nor for the international community.
In my view, the one thing in these negotiations that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must insist upon is a green light for Israel’s long-standing plan to expand Jerusalem eastward into the area known as E1. This is absolutely critical for the future of the city and for Israel’s long-term security.
Israel should be building 50,000 apartments in the E1 corridor over the next decade.
Every prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin has planned and promised to build in E1, for salient reasons: municipal and strategic imperatives that have only grown with time.
Let’s start with the municipal. The E1 quadrant on the eastern slopes of the city (beyond the Mount of Olives and along the road toward Maaleh Adumim) is the last significant piece of unsettled land in the Jerusalem envelope. It is the only place where tens of thousands of homes can be built to overcome Jerusalem’s serious housing shortage.
Jerusalem already abuts Ramallah in the north and Bethlehem in the south. Environmental lobbies have stymied all plans for significant housing projects in the mountains west of the city. The only direction to grow is eastward, into E1.
This growth is essential for Jerusalem’s viability. Except for very rich (and mostly foreign) buyers who can afford luxury skyscrapers and villas in central Jerusalem, there has been no significant new building in the Jerusalem envelope for over a decade.
The city has been held hostage to global politics. No new neighborhoods have been established since Netanyahu’s first term in the late 1990s (Har Homa). The government has shrunk from critically needed expansions of peripheral, middle-class neighborhoods like Ramot, Ramat Shlomo, Pisgat Ze’ev, and Gilo (all of which are over the Green Line) because of Obama administration pressures.
Even as such projects are slowly being freed up now, they won’t amount to anything near the 6,000 new apartments a year that Jerusalem needs just meet the demands of natural growth.
Where this hurts most is with hardworking, upwardly mobile young families with children, who simply have no affordable housing options in Jerusalem. This demographic has been exiting the city, leaving Jerusalem with socio-economically poor populations — mainly Arab and haredi residents.
This has grim implications for the attachment of Israelis to Jerusalem. Jerusalem must grow in order to remain a pluralistic, modern, Zionist metropolitan.
Mayor Nir Barkat has done wonders to bring high-tech employment and modern culture to the city in order to make Jerusalem a viable option for well-educated young Israelis. But without a gargantuan leap in affordable housing options — and that categorically means developing E1! — Barkat’s efforts may come to naught.
Now for the strategic.
Highway 1, which runs from Tel Aviv through Jerusalem to the Jordan Valley, is the only west-east axis across the State of Israel with a Jewish population majority. It is an essential and decisive military asset — the only safe route by which Israel can mobilize troops from the coast to the Jordan Valley in an emergency. Israel needs to secure the road from the coast to the valley via an undivided Jerusalem, the E1 corridor, and Maaleh Adumim.
Building in E1 and expanding Maaleh Adumim eastward are the best ways to augment Israel’s long-term hold across this strategic arc.
Some Oslo process pundits argue that Israel no longer needs the Jordan Valley as a shield against aggression from the east. The conventional military threat to Israel from the east, they note, has diminished — with the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the weakening of war-torn Syria, and the relative stability of Jordan despite the turmoil in the Arab world.
Yet this is a very short-term perspective, motivated by the desire to convince the Israeli public that the Jordan Valley is dispensable. This perspective ignores the immense potential for escalated political upheaval, including possible jihadist destabilization of Jordan.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan, the former IDF Central Command GOC and deputy chief of staff and national security adviser to the prime minister, has cogently laid out the argument for defensible borders that necessarily include the Jordan Valley.
He says that Israeli security requires three things: fundamental strategic depth; room to wage war against the threat of conventional attack from the outside; and room that allows for effectively combating terrorism. The minimal strategic depth and indivisible airspace required is the 65 kilometers (40 miles) average width of Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
As for room to wage war, that is the Jordan Rift Valley, which ranges between 6 and 14 kilometers (4 to 9 miles) wide. The mountains on the valley’s western edge (which range from 900 to 1,400 meters high) create a physical defensive barrier that is traversable only through five mountain passes. Thus, even a limited IDF force deployed in the valley should be able defend Israel against an attack from the east.
Furthermore, the Jordan Valley is the eastern buffer zone that prevents the West Bank mountain region from becoming a full-blown terrorist entity.
Some American and Israeli officials argue that Israel can achieve security on its eastern border by the placement of early detection systems in the Jordan Valley and by the deployment in the valley of foreign forces. That was the essence of the plan proposed by U.S. General John R. Allen on behalf of Secretary of State John Kerry. Then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon dismissed the plan out of hand, and Dayan concurs.
Dayan says that experience proves that no warning system can replace the defensive space of the Jordan Valley, and that Israel must never rely on foreign forces. Foreign troops will not risk their lives in the war on terror, and they will be the first to flee the region should a crisis develop.
Israeli grand strategist Professor Efraim Inbar says that Israeli negotiators of the past 20 years have approached security and diplomacy with their heads screwed on backward.
Israel must move, he says, from a policy of “security based on international agreements and diplomatic guarantees” to one of “agreements based on security provided by Israeli forces deployed in defensible spaces.” We have to think of defensible borders, he explains, not only as markers that ensure Israel’s security needs, but as key building blocks which guarantee that peace treaties will be sustainable.
All this leads back to building in E1.
Palestinian and some European figures argue that Israeli development of E1 would bifurcate the contiguous land mass that they hope to attain for Palestinian statehood.
Outrageously, the EU is even funding the establishment of unauthorized Palestinian and Bedouin settlements in E1 to create “facts on the ground” and prevent Israeli development in this zone.
But the accusation of bifurcation is a red herring, as is the demand for territorial contiguity. It is quite clear that any Israeli-Palestinian arrangement in Judea and Samaria is going to involve blocs and bypasses, overpasses and underpasses, detour roads and shared spaces. There are multiple, creative ways of creating livable contiguity in what will always be a complicated mesh of West Bank populations, Arab and Jewish. E1 is the least of problems in this regard.
E1 must be developed to revitalize Jerusalem and secure Israel.
David M. Weinberg (www.davidmweinberg.com) is director of public affairs at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.