North Africa, West Asia

E-1, or how I learned to stop worrying about the two-state solution

The development of the E-1 area is seen as a ‘doomsday device’ that can make or break the Israel-Palestine two-state solution. Despite its significance, however, it is merely one of many factors indicating that, for all the self-deception, it might already be too late.

Marco Allegra
1 August 2014

In November 2013, the new round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – which had begun that summer as a result of efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry to bring the parties to the table – threatened to collapse, after the Israeli Ministry of Housing issued tenders for a total of 20,000 housing units in the West Bank.

In November 2013, the new round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – which had begun that summer as a result of efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry to bring the parties to the table – threatened to collapse, after the Israeli Ministry of Housing issued tenders for a total of 20,000 housing units in the West Bank.

The list published by the ministry announced the construction of 1,400 housing units in the so-called “E-1 area” as well as in other locations near Jerusalem, including Gush Etzion and Efrat. The declaration provoked an immediate reaction from the Palestinian Authority and the US government. This prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who apparently had no prior knowledge of the Ministry of Housing’s actions, to immediately cancel the tenders for the E-1 area.

These events represented only the most recent chapter in the E-1 saga. A year earlier, a storm had erupted when, after the concession of “non-member observer” status to Palestine by the UN General Assembly, the Israeli government announced that it would approve development plans for the E-1 area – a few days later, the West Bank Higher Planning Council (HPC, the Israeli local planning commission) began to examine plans for the construction of more than 3,000 housing units in the area.

The Israeli retaliation over the UNGA vote triggered a much stronger reaction from the international community. Representatives of all major European countries immediately issued uncharacteristically harsh statements – and were joined in that by, among others, the UN Secretary General, Russia, Australia, Brazil, Egypt and Jordan. Israeli ambassadors in various countries were summoned to explain Tel Aviv’s action – France and the UK even considered the unprecedented move of recalling their ambassadors.

A spokesperson for the White House invited Netanyahu to “reconsider” his move. Palestinian activists erected a symbolic “counter-settlement” in the E-1 area to protest against the Israeli plan. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, termed the plan a “red line” not to be crossed; if plans for the E-1 area were implemented, he said, “the idea of peace, the idea of a two-state solution, will disappear”.

What was all the fuss about? The label “E-1”, coined by Israeli planning offices decades ago, denotes an area of about 12 square kilometres that lies immediately east of the Israeli-defined city limits of Jerusalem, within the municipal jurisdiction of the Jewish settlement of Ma’ale Adumim.

Beginning in 1995, Israel drafted a number of development plans for the area, none of which has yet been implemented – except for the construction of a police station (the new headquarters for the district of Judaea and Samaria) and infrastructural works. The reason for the near absence of developments in the E-1 area in the last 20 years is that the E-1 plan is widely perceived as a 'Doomsday Device' placed at the core of the peace process.

Just as in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, the detonation of E-1 would dramatically change the reality on the ground, to the point of initiating a long nuclear winter for conflict resolution. The implementation of Israeli plans for E-1, the conventional wisdom goes, would destroy any chance of creating a contiguous and sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel, and therefore determine the collapse of the so-called “two-state solution”.

On the surface, the E-1 story therefore has a happy ending, or perhaps we should say a “happy non-ending”. The minimalist progress of the plan through the local planning bureaucracy has clearly been unable so far to produce any significant result on the ground. The US has been able to stop the implementation of Israeli projects for the area – a rare example of successful settlement freeze obtained through diplomatic pressure.

A plan that would destroy any hope of reaching a peaceful resolution of the conflict has been successfully frozen for the past two decades and, if the American veto is maintained, the possibility of implementing a “two-state” solution by creating a Palestinian state would remain open for the future. Despite the bleak condition of Israeli-Palestinian relations, international diplomacy thus seems to have scored a crucial success.

Or have they? The fact that E-1 is widely considered as the paradigmatic “Doomsday Settlement” has contributed to blocking its implementation so far; by and large, both its supporters and opponents of Israeli plans tend to view E-1 as a territorial point of no return in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

My argument here, however, is that the conventional wisdom about E-1 is, at least in part, misleading when it comes to assessing the nature of the plan itself and the geopolitics of the conflict in the Jerusalem area. More broadly, the E-1 affair also demonstrates how America’s determined efforts to cling to the so-called “two-state” formula are far removed from the reality on the ground. In this respect, the prevalent discourse about E-1 is just another component of what Ian Lustick has defined, in a recent New York Times op-ed, as the “Two-State Illusion” – i.e. an exercise in self-deception that saves all the parties involved from coming to terms with reality, while at the same time maintaining all their claims intact.

"E-1 is Ma'ale Adumim, Ma'ale Adumim is Jerusalem"

First let’s try to understand how it all started. The history of E-1 began in the early 1990s, when the government led by Yitzhak Shamir started discussing plans for the development of a (Jewish) urban corridor linking Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim, located about 7 km east of the Old City.

In 1994, while Yitzhak Rabin was in power, the E-1 area was placed under the municipal jurisdiction of Ma’ale Adumim – which consequently expanded to cover an area of 48 km2 (Tel Aviv, whose population is ten times larger, occupies an area of 52 km2), reaching Jerusalem city limits. The following year, the same government approved what eventually became known as the “E-1 plan” (formally Outline Plan 420/4).

E1 plan, 1998. The Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA).

E1 plan, 1998. The Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA).

Ma’ale Adumim was founded at the end of 1970s within the context of a wider effort for the creation of a belt of Jewish settlements in the metropolitan area of Jerusalem. This was done with the aim of creating a territorial-demographic “fact on the ground”, challenging the Palestinian presence in the area, and, at the same time, providing an answer to the overcrowding of the inner city and the growing Jewish demand for suburban housing.

From the very start, the development of Ma’ale Adumim has always been intimately connected, both in geopolitical and planning terms, to the development of the metropolitan area of Jerusalem – indeed, the first project implemented in the area was the construction in the mid-1970s of the industrial area of Mishor Adumim, destined to serve the region as a whole. Twenty years later, planning for the E-1 area clearly followed this metropolitan approach, allocating vast expanses of land for “regional needs” and “the social and economic benefit of the population of [Ma’ale Adumim] and the district” (meaning Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements in the area).

In the 1980s Ma’ale Adumim began its steady and so far uninterrupted growth, and with a current population of about 40,000, is today one of the largest settlements in the West Bank. Ma’ale Adumim also represents a success story in Israel’s settlement policy, due to the pace of its expansion, the high quality of life enjoyed by the residents in terms of services and infrastructures, and its relatively uncontroversial status in Israeli public opinion.

Finally, Ma’ale Adumim – whose population primarily consists of commuters working in Jerusalem – is also a good example of the suburban character of Israel’s settlement policy, as the vast majority of settlers live in relatively large localities around the two main metropolitan centres of the country, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

In the last twenty years, however, the slow progress of Israel’s plans for the E-1 area has been, paradoxically, due to the same factor that allowed for a rapid growth of Ma’ale Adumim – the strict relation between the settlement and the metropolitan area of Jerusalem. It is in this context that the E-1 plan has become, for its supporters and opponents alike, a focal point for Israeli-Palestinian relations.

On the Israeli side, the development of E-1 represents a matter of almost universal consensus. The equation “E-1=Ma’ale Adumim=Jerusalem” has served to considerably lessen the controversial character of the plan, to the extent that developments in the E-1 area are widely considered necessary to ensure the natural growth of (Jewish) metropolitan Jerusalem, and its continuation under Israeli control. All subsequent Israeli prime ministers after Shamir have endorsed the E-1 scheme. Governments of different colours have promoted its progress through the Israeli planning system, and countless statements by Israeli politicians have defined E-1 as a strategic area that will remain under Israeli control whatever happens in the future.

The Israeli consensus surroundin g the E-1 plan reflects the same mix of geopolitical and planning arguments behind the development of Ma’ale Adumim. As Jerusalem’s Mayor, Nir Barkat, put it in a 2012Wall Street Journal op-ed:

“The expansion of Jerusalem's residential areas is essential for the natural growth of all segments of our population…The capital of a sovereign nation cannot be expected to freeze growth rather than provide housing to families of all faiths eager to make their lives there. As for ‘E-1’, this land has always been considered the natural site for the expansion of contiguous neighbourhoods of metropolitan Jerusalem. ‘E-1’ strengthens Jerusalem. It does not impede peace in our region. The international alarm about planned construction is based solely on the misplaced dreams of the Palestinians and their supporters for a divided Jerusalem”.

In a more politico-strategic fashion, the current President of Israel, Likud MP Reuven Rivlin, declared that blocking development in E-1 would:

“Cut off [Ma’ale Adumim] from the rest of Israel like Mount Scopus was from 1947 to 1967. Everyone who sees [Ma’ale Adumim] as part of Israel understands the need for territorial contiguity. [Ma’ale Adumim] cannot continue to exist if all the area connecting it to Jerusalem becomes densely populated with Palestinians. This will only lead to putting the city in danger of terror attacks”.

Conversely, the implementation of the E-1 plan is considered by Palestinians and the international community alike as an irreparable vulnus to the conflict resolution perspective embodied in the formula “two people, two states” – which envisions the birth of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and considers the armistice line of 1949 (the pre-1967 border) as the territorial basis for future interstate borders (with possible - minimal - land swaps and a special agreement on Jerusalem).

The E-1 plan is widely interpreted as a project for the creation of a Jewish “urban corridor” between Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem, and therefore is seen as the ultimate threat to the territorial contiguity of a future Palestinian state. Since the only connection between the north (Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin) and the south (Bethlehem, Nablus) of the West Bank passes through the area between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim – and given the topography and infrastructure of the area – the development of such a corridor would split the West Bank into two separate cantons. On this point, a background paper published by the PLO Negotiation Support Unit in 2009 notes that:

“If fully implemented, E-1 would deny East Jerusalem its last remaining area for future growth and economic development. In addition, the location of E-1 and its massive size would assure Israeli control over the key junction area connecting the northern part of the West Bank to the south”.

Interestingly, this seems also to be the view held by many of the staunchest supporters of the plan. As the former leader of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip (YESHA), Pinhas Wallerstein, argued: “E-1 is the key to Jerusalem's security…Building in E-1 will create a continuous area from French Hill to [Ma’ale Adumim]. The minute E-1 is filled with Jewish building, then we have closed the corridor from Abu Dis to Ramallah. Not building will endanger parts of Jerusalem”.

Nadav Shragai, from the right-wing think tank the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, concurs, defining building in E-1 as “a vital Israeli interest”:

“Contiguity of Israeli construction between Jerusalem and [Ma’ale Adumim] will ostensibly create a barrier between Palestinian areas south of Jerusalem and areas of Palestinian settlement to the north. By contrast, if the area of E-1 passes into Palestinian hands and/or Palestinian construction there intensifies, this will detach the city of [Ma’ale Adumim] from Jerusalem…The construction of E-1 will make the difference between Jewish contiguity from west to east and Palestinian contiguity from north to south”.

Dissecting the E-1 plan 

In general, supporters and opponents of the E-1 plan seem to agree about the politico-territorial consequences of the implementation of Israeli projects (the zero-sum game inherent to development in the area and the relation between E-1 and final status issues), as well as on notions such as “urban corridor” and “territorial contiguity”.

It is also interesting to note that in the prevalent discourse on the issue, the “E-1 plan” is considered as a whole, a single development package, graphically represented by reports, newspapers and websites as a uniform area (usually blue or red-coloured) stretching between Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem. In order to get a sense of what E-1 really is, however, we need to dig a bit deeper.

To begin with, the very notion of “E-1 plan” tends to obscure more than clarify the nature of the projects for the E-1 area. The “E-1 plan” is technically an Outline Plan (plan 420/4, drafted in 1995, approved by the Higher Planning Commission in 1999). In the local planning system, Outline Plans constitute general planning schemes defining land use – in this case, for the twelve square kilometres that constitute the E-1 area.

As a consequence, for any tender to be issued and construction to start, the local planning commission needs to approve a specific detailed plan. Finally, throughout the planning process, the Israeli Ministry of Defence – and, at least in this case, the prime minister’s office – must approve each and every step.

PeaceNow_E1DetailedPlans%20copy.jpg

E1 detailed plans, based on the map in the report by Peace Now. View larger version.

Within the framework of Outline Plan 420/4, various detailed plans have been presented by different Israeli bodies and agencies: for the expansion of the residential area of Ma’ale Adumim (Detailed Plans 420/4/7 and 420/4/10, for a total of 3,650 housing units); for the construction of hotels and villas (420/4/3, 260 housing units); for a leisure and commercial area (420/4/2); for a water reservoir near the al-Zayin junction (420/4/1); and for the above-mentioned police station (420/4/9). So far, these plans have progressed very slowly through the politico-bureaucratic jungle of Israel’s planning system.

The first two plans for residential housing now only need the final approval by the prime minister, while the third is still lagging behind in planning terms and, at least as far as its residential component is concerned, the Ministry of Housing expressed reservation about its economic viability. The plan for the commercial area also initially met with financial difficulties, and recently an internal review by the Israeli planning offices discovered that private properties in the area were far more numerous and larger than expected.

This means that its implementation in the original form and scale envisaged is impossible, and that planning in the area will have to start from scratch. The projects for the police station and the water reservoir are the only ones to have been implemented so far. As a consequence, the Outline Plan for the E-1 area cannot be “implemented” as such. The individual detailed plans put forward in the context of this general planning scheme are independent from one another in terms of their progress; if implemented, each would have different territorial and politico-diplomatic consequences.

But this is perhaps just a sophistic and ultimately futile exercise in semantics. The fundamental dispute around E-1 focuses on the two plans for residential housing; and indeed, the implementation of these plans – with a combined potential of 15-20,000 new residents – would be a territorial and demographic “fact on the ground” of such magnitude that it would imply the maintenance of Israel’s control on the new neighbourhoods for the foreseeable future (by way of comparison, it is worth noting that roughly 8,000 residents were evicted from smaller and more peripheral settlements scattered across the entire Gaza Strip in 2005, and only at a huge political and material cost).

The past history of the area suggests that this would almost certainly be the case. Still, this does not mean that concepts such as “urban corridor” or “territorial contiguity” are necessarily relevant for assessing the impact of the implementation of Israeli plans for E-1. In the first place, the two planned residential areas (plans 420/4/7 and 420/4/10) are located north (not west) of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement; the plans for the area stretching between the settlement and Jerusalem (420/4/3 and 420/4/2) are lagging far behind and, in any case, do not envisage the dense residential development associated with the notion of “urban corridor”.

Moreover – and despite the wishes of some Israeli supporters of the plan – it is hardly possible to imagine how a “Jewish territorial contiguity” could be created between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim: localities such as Abu Dis, El-Eizariya, Al-Zayim and ‘Anata form a belt of Palestinian residential areas between the two. Conversely, no Palestinian residential development in the area could guarantee the connection between the north and south of the West Bank.

In this respect, it is difficult to argue that the severe limitations to the Palestinians’ freedom of movement in the area of metropolitan Jerusalem are connected to the implementation of Israeli plans for E-1 (and in particular to the two plans for residential housing). As a matter of fact, while the E-1 plan has been almost completely frozen for the past twenty years, in the same period the situation has steadily worsened for the Palestinians. Indeed, Palestinian areas currently enjoy only a precarious ‘transportational contiguity’, to the point that Palestinian mobility could paradoxically take advantage of the current Israeli projects for the creation of a “Palestinian only” road between Ramallah and Bethlehem in the al-Zayim area.

Palestinian mobility depends on the management of the road system and, at least for the future, on the realisation of infrastructure developments aimed at improving the north-south road connections – to be realised either east or west of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement (even if the former area is regarded as presenting difficult technical challenges).

In other words, the PA’s concerns notwithstanding, the limitations to Palestinian mobility between Ramallah, East Jerusalem and Bethlehem parallel the existence of similar obstacles in the rest of the West Bank (not to mention the problem of the connection between the latter and the Gaza Strip) and depend not so much on the E-1 plans but rather on the existence of infrastructural and administrative obstacles (in the form of lack of investments, physical barriers, checkpoints, bypass roads and the permits system).

Much ado about nothing? Not really. The arguments voiced against the implementation of the E-1 plans cannot be easily dismissed. The plans envisage a significant expansion of a Jewish settlement in the overcrowded, politically and territorially fragile area of Jerusalem’s eastern periphery – as well as considerable territorial developments of various types. Both the implementation of the housing projects and the creation of commercial and tourist infrastructures would implicitly strengthen Israel’s argument for further developments, as well as for the maintaining of a tight security system in the area. However, if we consider the demographic and territorial issues in the light of a possible agreement based on the “two-state” formula, the core of the problem is represented by the very existence of the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim; and, more broadly, by the fast and chaotic expansion of metropolitan Jerusalem in all its territorial and demographic components.

One could legitimately argue that, to paraphrase Milton Friedman, settlement expansion should be avoided “under any circumstances and for any excuse, for any reason, whenever it's possible”. But if we assume that large settlements such as Ma’ale Adumim will remain under Israel’s control (and any other option seems far removed from reality, at least for the foreseeable future), the enormous problem we face today is that, whatever the progress of the plans for the E-1 area, any partition of Mandatory Palestine into two states would imply a territorial zero-sum game.

In other words, (limited) territorial contiguity for one of the parties can only be realised by offering a mere “transportational contiguity” to the other. In the case of Jerusalem’s periphery, the alternative is between privileging Palestinian (by creating a narrow infrastructural corridor between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim) or Israeli contiguity (by creating a corridor between Bethlehem and Ramallah). Moreover, if we assume that Jerusalem should remain a functioning urban system to be shared by the two parties – at least to some degree or in relation to specific functions and areas – any politico-administrative and territorial solution would require both the presence of dedicated physical infrastructure (new roads, tunnels, barriers, checkpoints, and so on) and a high degree of coordination between the Israeli and Palestinian states (including special agreements for the joint management of specific issues).

Today, this intractable bundle of territorial and demographic “facts on the ground” represents the core of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Against this background, the idea that is possible to solve the conflict by drawing a line between Palestinian and Jewish communities constitutes at the very least a form of self-deception and serves as a way to avoid coming to terms with an unpleasant reality.

An ever-ticking time bomb?

The conventional wisdom about settlement expansion and E-1 is part and parcel of this self-deception – a role-playing game that has been going on for the last thirty years. The so-called “irreversibility debate” began in Israel in the early 1980s, when Meron Benvenisti was one of the first to declare that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza had already passed the point of no return and had therefore become an irreversible, de facto annexation. Benvenisti argued that settlement expansion had already dramatically transformed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from a border dispute to an inter-communal confrontation within a bi-national state.

The events that marked the end of 1980s and the beginning of 1990s contributed to burying this debate: after 1987, the First Intifada significantly increased the political and material costs of Israel’s control of the Territories, signalling that the Palestinians were not ready to exchange their rights for the benefits of Israel’s “benevolent occupation”. In 1993, the start of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations seemed to confirm that the two-state formula could function as the basis of a political agreement on crucial issues such as the powers and responsibilities of a Palestinian government, along with questions concerning settlements, border issues (including the status of Jerusalem) and the problem of Palestinian refugees.

Since then, however, more than twenty years of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the aegis of the US have failed to meet these enormous challenges. And, every once in a while, the expansion of a Jewish settlement resurrects the same outcry: that the settlement doomsday clock is fast approximating midnight, and that the window of opportunity for a two state solution is closing. As negotiations failed to produce results, this became the mantra of diplomats, analysts and the growing peace-process industry.

The original doomsday clock – which appeared for the first time in 1947 on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and has been maintained ever since, oscillating back-and-forth, reflecting the fluctuating risk of a global nuclear war. The pace of a hypothetical settlement doomsday clock, however, confronts us with a paradox: in the past forty-six years, the expansion of settlements has proceeded unabated, but the “point of no return” mantra is still being chanted by a chorus including all the main players – Israelis, Palestinians and the international community. It would seem that, whatever happens, we are permanently stuck at five minutes to midnight.

An educated guess would be that the clock in fact struck midnight a long time ago. Today, Israeli plans for E-1 are widely considered the ultimate doomsday settlement. It would be wrong to deny the relevance of these meaningful and controversial plans for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. But it would be probably better to admit, however, that considering their implementation to be the death blow to the peace process reveals a great deal of optimism in assessing the present state of the conflict.

More than that, it demonstrates the reluctance of politicians and analysts to leave the comfort zone represented by the two-state formula and venture into the uncharted territory of a “post-border approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am deliberately using the formula “post-border approach” instead of, say, “one-state solution” because I do not believe that the sunset of the two-state discourse automatically provides us with an alternative, better path towards the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – indeed, no such path seems to be visible today.

But, whatever the future brings, it would be better to look it straight in the eye. Today, like the proverbial drunk man, we have lost the keys of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the park, but we are busy looking for them under the street light; nothing will come out of it, but, of course, “at least there’s some light there”.

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