Why Is Israel On a Settlement-Construction Spree?

The Israeli prime minister's controversial plans, condemned around the world, are about more than just punishing the Palestinians.

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A construction site in Gilo, on land Israel captured in 1967 and annexed to its Jerusalem municipality, on January 16, 2011. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Over the past few weeks, the Israeli government has been on a building spree. First came word that planning and zoning would begin for E1, a controversial move that would further encircle East Jerusalem with settlements -- cutting off from the West Bank the part of the city Palestinians demand to be the capital of their future state. As part of the same announcement, Israel said that it was going to build more housing in other parts of the West Bank as well.

This week, the government approved 1500 new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem -- the same housing units whose initial announcement in 2010 during Vice President Biden's visit to Israel caused a temporary rift between the United States and Israel and Hilary Clinton's chewing-out of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The Interior Ministry and the Jerusalem Local Committee are also expected to approve plans to build in Givat Hamatos and Gilo this week, both of which are new Jerusalem neighborhoods that are also across the 1967 armistice line that divides East and West Jerusalem.

This is all taking place despite enormous pressure and condemnation from Western countries, who are not happy with the escalation of Israeli plans to expand settlements or to build up Jerusalem neighborhoods that challenge the viability of a future Palestinian state. Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal are about to formally condemn Israel over its East Jerusalem building plans, and the 14 non-American members of the United Nations Security Council are going to do the same. Even the United States seems to have lost its usual patience with the Israeli government, deeming the new building announcements part of a "pattern of provocative action" that endangers the peace process and the two-state solution. Israel seems hell-bent on isolating itself over the settlement issue, and appears determined to move ahead with plans for both the West Bank and East Jerusalem no matter the cost.

It is easy to chalk this up to Israel's fury with the Palestinian Authority's statehood bid at the United Nations, as the E1 announcement came the day after the vote, amidst stated determination on Israel's part to punish the Palestinians for pursuing unilateral moves outside of the Oslo framework. "We felt if the Palestinians were taking unilateral action in the UN, we had to also send the message that we could take unilateral actions," Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren said this week, making the connection explicit.

Yet, this does not account for the scope of the recent Israeli announcements, or for the seeming recklessness of drawing real anger and censure from Israel's Western allies immediately following American and EU support during Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza. There is indeed something else going on here, and it has nothing to do with the Palestinians and everything to do with the political jockeying taking place on the right of Israel's political spectrum before Israelis go to the polls on January 22 to elect their next government.

When Netanyahu created the joint list between Likud and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, the thinking behind the move was to create a right-wing monolith that would not only handily win the election, but also present rightwing voters without a real alternative. Not only was the plan to keep Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu voters, but to recapture the erstwhile Likud voters who had cast their ballots for Kadima in the past two elections and would now, with Kadima's imminent disappearance, have nowhere else to go.

Presented by

Michael Koplow

Michael J. Koplow is the program director of the Israel Institute and a Georgetown University Ph.D. candidate in Government specializing in the Middle Eastern politics and democratization. He has written for Foreign Policy and Security Studies, and writes regularly at Ottomans and Zionists.

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