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A Netanyahu-Lieberman Deal For New Settlements?

Our guest blogger is Moran Banai, U.S. editor of the Middle East Bulletin.

If today’s Army Radio reports are true, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister-designate, and Avigdor Lieberman, its likely foreign minister, have made a secret agreement to start building homes on a piece of land called E1.

Just yesterday, Middle East Bulletin published an edition focused on settlements -– one of the main stumbling blocks on the road to a sustainable two-state solution -– and included a primer about and photos of E1. E1 is a corridor of land between Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim that has been a point of contention between Israeli governments and the United States for over a decade.

Israelis see Maale Adumim as a suburb of Jerusalem and one of the settlements that will remain in Israeli hands at the end of any negotiations and government ministers have said in the past that they are building E1 to establish contiguity between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim. There have been plans to build approximately 3,500 homes in E1 for several years, but they have been repeatedly put off.

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In 2008, however, a police station was opened in E1 and overall, Israel has invested over NIS 100 million in infrastructure in the area. There are already signs in the area bearing the name of the new neighborhood –- Mevasseret Adumim. Establishing such contiguity through E1 would deeply cleave the West Bank at its narrowest point and separate East Jerusalem from the West Bank, leading to what President Bush famously cautioned must be avoided — a “Swiss cheese” state for the Palestinians.

Both Acting Prime Minister Olmert and designee Netanyahu have pledged that they are “partners for peace” with the Palestinians. Olmert signed on to Annapolis, under which the United States was to monitor both sides’ compliance with their obligations, and Netanyahu just signed a coalition agreement with the Labor Party that according to Haaretz includes the stipulations that “Israel will formulate a comprehensive plan for Middle East peace and cooperation, continue peace negotiations and commit itself to peace accords already signed.” Freezing settlement growth and taking down outposts is a Road Map obligation for Israel and the Sharm el-Sheikh fact-finding committee (chaired by now Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell) called in its 2001 report for a complete settlement freeze — including “natural growth.”

As Congressman Robert Wexler (D-FL) said in a hearing on rebuilding Gaza in February:

I think those of us… who are deeply committed to … the security of the state of Israel — must say, and must say it in an unequivocal fashion: It is incumbent upon Israel to freeze settlement activity. While in and of itself that is not the only part of this equation, the Palestinians have enormous responsibilities; but the notion that Israel can continue to expand settlements, whether it be through natural growth or otherwise, without diminishing the capacity of a two-state solution, is both unrealistic and, I would respectfully suggest, hypocritical.