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Israel-Palestine Special: Why More Settlements Are Vital to West Jerusalem's Long-Term Strategy

On Monday, Israeli authorities authorised plans to expand the Ramat Shlomo settlement, located on Palestinian territory, with 1500 housing units. Reports followed that a total of an additional 6500 apartments across the 1967 Green Line will be approved this week.

The latest steps have received some international attention, with the US State Department criticising Israel's "pattern of provocation".

But here is the important question: does anyone recognise Israel's long-term agenda behind the "pattern"? These settlements are not just being established as a short-term extension of Israel --- they will be maintained as a "natural" and "inalienable" development, given the Palestinian "failure" to meet West Jerusalem's essential need for "security". These apartments are not being built to derail a would-be negotiation process; they are part of the attempt at Israel's perpetual superiority over the Palestinians.

Ramat Shlomo, located within occupied East Jerusalem, drew attention when Israel'announced plans for its expansion as US Vice President Joe Biden was making an official visit in 2010. Although Ministry of Interior spokesman Efrat Orbach said the project still has to go through several additional planning stages, meaning construction is months and maybe years away, the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator Saeb Erekat was adamant, "We condemn in the strongest possible terms these Israeli actions and the determination of Israel to continue expanding settlements and in the process undermining the two-state solution."

City Councillor Yair Gabbai shrugged off the criticism, as well as that of outside actors like the European Union, "The moment Palestinians went to the UN and went unilaterally, the Prime Minister gave a green light to do all [of the building work in East Jerusalem]. Everything was ready years ago, we were just waiting for green light."

That misleading statement highlights the strategy behind the settlements. The construction of 3,000 housing units in the West Bank, including building in the controversial E1 area near East Jerusalem, was not simply a reaction to Ramallah’s “unilateral” step.

Weeks before the UN vote on Palestine's status, the Netanyahu government called for plans for 607 new homes in Pisgat Zeev and 606 in Ramot? The budget allocated to Jewish settlements in the West Bank was doubled the portion of Israel's national budget  settlements. Six dates before the UN decision, Netanyahu went to East Jerusalem and declared that Israel would continue its settlement constructions in Gilo?

Why does West Jerusalem continue to expand, despite waves of protest across the world? Some observers have cited Netanyahu's approach to the January elections. While that is true, it is only an interim stage in a bigger quest.

The settlements have become the front line for Israeli governments to legitimise the expansion of civilian --- “natural” --- activities and security for them. Once they are established, it is Palestinians who have to meet the “sincerity test” by agreeing to negotiations, rather than insisting that the blocs must be dismantled before further talks. It is Israel's "security concerns" that are embedded in the negotiations as the partner of "peace", rather than the Palestinian aspirations for a viable, recognised State. 

Israeli Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser summarised this vision of the "right" priorities, and thus the purpose of the settlements:

The Israeli government needs to make it clear that unilateral steps by the Palestinians [by going to the United Nations for recognition] are not the way things are going to get solved.

We're trying every way possible to get the Palestinians back to the table. The Palestinians think that they can get achievements by unilateral action, and we are showing them that they cannot. If anyone thinks that because of pressure, Israel won't build in Gilo and Ramat Shlomo then he doesn’t understand the map of Israeli interests.

Confident enough to maintain an aggressive tone, telling the European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to “mind her business” and accusing the EU of “seeing Israel’s destruction as a matter of course”, the Netanyahhu government can show toughness while putting the burden on Palestinians to accept the “legitimacy” of Israeli settlements --- rather than beginning with West Jerusalem's acceptance of any "legitimacy" of the other side.

So far, that approach has not faced meaningful resistance. Instead, politicians like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel waver: “We are agreed that we are not agreed”. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland pretended nothing had happened when she was asked about this week's decisions for expansion in East Jerusalem:

I didn’t see a new announcement today, Matt, but our policy on settlements remains unchanged. We make our views known to the Israelis at every opportunity.

So the dance continues, with references to a two-state solution but no meaningful progress. Negotiations which might lead to two state will only occur if Palestinians can become as strong as Israelis in economic, political and military terms, which is impossible -- or if there is a challenge to Israel's institutions and its discourse of "security" from within, which is not likely.

And the settlements are meant not to change either of these conditions, but to ensure that they can continue without foreseeable end.

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