The E1 emergency

You can’t say Israel and United States didn’t warn each other, or that they didn’t see this coming.

The Americans anticipated a potential Israeli overreaction to the Palestinian United Nations status upgrade to “nonmember observer state.” And there was one measure they particularly wanted to prevent: new Israeli settlement construction in the hypersensitive E1 corridor near Jerusalem.

So a few days before the UN vote, Washington specifically warned Israel not to “retaliate” by building in E1. What was Israel’s immediate reaction to the vote? Why, to announce at least 3,000 new settler housing units, including, of course, in E1. And to add, for good measure, that any commitments to the United States not to build there were “no longer relevant.”

Building in E1 is among the most damaging steps Israel could take to undermine a two-state solution. E1 threatens to almost cut the West Bank in half. It will completely split occupied East Jerusalem off from the rest of the territory.

All serious observers agree with Jerusalem expert Danny Seidemann, who explains, “E-1 is a binary settlement,” because “a Palestinian state must be territorially contiguous, with a link to Jerusalem. That is why this is the decisive battle over the feasibility of ‘two states for two peoples.'”

That is precisely why every American administration has opposed the project since it was first announced in 1999: It’s among the few decisive actions either side could take that could finally lead people around the world, especially Israelis and Palestinians, to finally abandon any hope for a two-state solution.

More than the withholding of Palestinian tax revenues, which Israel has also decided to do, or even annexing territory (which wouldn’t be recognized internationally anyway), building in E1 is among the most aggressive and harmful measures Israel could take in response to the Palestinians’ symbolic UN upgrade. E1 construction is anything but symbolic. It transforms the strategic reality very dramatically away from a two-state solution.

The reason so many European states shifted their votes at the UN last week in the Palestinian direction is that they have become increasingly concerned the Israeli government isn’t interested in a genuine two-state solution. Israel’s E1 construction announcement can only serve to heighten these fears. So does the election of an annexationist slate of leaders of the ruling Likud party.

The international reaction has been strong. Britain, France and Sweden are reportedly considering withdrawing their ambassadors from Tel Aviv if building goes ahead. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the plan a potentially “fatal blow” to a two-state solution, because Palestinians will not sign to a peace agreement that does not allow East Jerusalem to serve as their capital.

The New York Times reported that the announcement came as a “rude shock” to the Obama administration, particularly since they had specifically warned Israel in advance against precisely this form of “retaliation.”

The State Department noted E1 construction would be “especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution.” The White House went further, with spokesman Jay Carney saying, “We urge Israeli leaders to reconsider these actions.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself observed, “These activities set back the cause of a negotiated peace.” And former Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel bluntly said the president had been “betrayed” after supporting Israel in its recent conflict with Hamas and at the UN.

This strong international response prompted some Israeli pullback. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to reassure the international community by explicitly telling his cabinet that approval only applies to planning and zoning, not actual construction activity.

The Jerusalem Post interpreted Netanyahu’s comments as likely intended signals to the Palestinians that actual building would only proceed if they took further action at multilateral institutions, presumably particularly the International Criminal Court. If it’s a threat, that’s one thing. If Israel really intends to go ahead with construction, that’s something else altogether.

Stopping the construction of the E1 project is essential to at least preserve the viability of a two-state solution, which, in turn, is a necessary first step to actively pursuing its realization.

Thus far, international pressure has been sufficient to keep E1 basically on the drawing board. With strong American leadership—not waiting for Israel’s election to act, but understanding there can be stronger commitments after it is over—the international community must drag Israel back from the brink.

Israeli leaders are in a fit of rage, and an election campaign with all its incitement to pandering. It’s leading them to flirt with a measure that could foreclose for this and future Israeli generations a peace agreement with the Palestinians and a future of security and acceptance in the region.

E1 construction is a crucial test for all parties that claim to be committed to a two-state solution. Stop this construction. Stop it, or just drop the pretense.