JERUSALEM — Unshaken by rising international criticism, Israeli officials confirmed Tuesday that they plan to proceed with two new settlement construction projects, including development in a highly contentious area outside Jerusalem known as E1.
Six countries have summoned Israeli ambassadors to hear protests of the new settlement plans, and the United States labeled the plans “contrary to United States policy.”
But Israeli officials appeared unconcerned by what one of Israel’s most popular papers, Yedioth Ahronoth, called a “diplomatic tsunami.”
“At the end of the day, it’s a slap on the wrist,” said one senior Israeli political official who was involved in the decision to approve the new settlements. He spoke to McClatchy only on the condition of anonymity so he could discuss the issue candidly. “The international community is raising a fuss – which it feels it needs to do – but this too will pass.”
The official pointed out that no nation had recalled its ambassadors to Israel or pledged to take any real action against Israel as a result of the announcement. “There is a lot of bluster and maybe a bit of bluffing, but that is international diplomacy,” said the official.
The bluffing, he added, could also be on the part of Israel.
While Israeli officials have confirmed that they’ll proceed with building 3,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, they note that the most contentious part of the plan – new building in the E1 area – is only in the zoning phase.
“It can take years to go from zoning to actual construction, and it can take decades if the international community is protesting,” said one Jerusalem municipal official, who spoke during a news briefing under the condition that he not be identified.
E1 is a narrow 12,000-acre corridor east of Jerusalem that serves as the main thoroughfare connecting the northern and southern portions of the West Bank. Building Jewish settlements in E1 would in effect cut the West Bank in two, irreparably altering the borders of what Palestinians see as their future state, international human rights groups have said.
Construction in E1 was first proposed nearly two decades ago, the Jerusalem municipal official said, but it’s been routinely frozen because of pressure from international groups.
“Whenever Israel wants to raise the pressure it knows exactly where to push the buttons,” said one senior European diplomat based in Jerusalem, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to reporters. “There is no more sensitive topic as E1. It is the red line.”
But he, too, thought it was unlikely that Israel would break ground on construction in E1.
“We have to remember that here in Israel it’s election season,” he said.
Israeli political analysts said preliminary evidence showed that the decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to build new settlements could make him more popular with his largely right-wing constituency, many of whom were disappointed that he didn’t go further in last month’s military operation in the Gaza Strip.
The settlement move was “what voters expect” of Netanyahu, Tamir Sheafer, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, told the Reuters news service.
"Maybe they are worried in (Netanyahu’s) Likud that right-wing voters will opt instead for (the far-right religious) Habayit Hayehudi party," Sheafer said.
One of Netanyahu’s opponents in the upcoming election, Tzipi Livni, said Netanyahu was bluffing over E1, though she said he was doing irreparable damage to Israel’s image abroad. “We will have lost the support of the entire world and Israel’s closest friends,” she said.
Publicly, Israeli officials have argued that the settlement that was announced was a “natural step” after Palestine won recognition last month as a nonmember observer state at the United Nations.
“From our perspective, Israel is responding in a very measured way to a series of Palestinian provocations,” said government spokesman Mark Regev. Israeli officials have claimed that by going to the U.N. and seeking a unilateral step, the Palestinians violated previous truce agreements with Israel.
Palestinians, in turn, said Israel was trying to destroy any chance of a peaceful resolution through a two-state solution, the idea of an Israel and a Palestine co-existing.
“Settlement building directly harms any chance for real progress towards a two-state solution,” said Palestinian government spokesman Xavier Abu Eid.
The United States, in a statement Monday from deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner, has made it clear that it agrees with the Palestinian view.
“The United States opposes all unilateral actions, including West Bank settlement activity and housing construction in East Jerusalem, as they complicate efforts to resume direct, bilateral negotiations, and risk prejudging the outcome of those negotiations,” he said. “This includes building in the E-1 area, as this area is particularly sensitive and construction there would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution.”
But Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian lawmaker, said the international community had to go further than calling in diplomats and voicing complaints.
"We have to move to concrete steps, so Israel knows it has something to lose and will be held accountable, in accordance with international law," Ashrawi said.
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @sheeraf