JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel is planning its biggest construction surge in east Jerusalem in decades in a move that critics argue would cement its grip on the contested territory, further complicate any prospects for peace with the Palestinians, and badly rattle Israel's already rocky relations with the rest of the world.
With more than 9,000 apartments in various stages of planning and construction, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reaffirming his opposition to ceding any parts of the holy city to the Palestinians, a compromise two of his predecessors had accepted. The planned construction contributes to completing a ring of Jewish areas around the Arab inner core of east Jerusalem, making it more difficult to one day link it to the West Bank, which surrounds the city on three sides.
The Palestinians, who hope to establish a future capital in the holy city's eastern sector, say there can be no peace accord without partitioning Jerusalem. They claim the construction push proves Netanyahu isn't serious about establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Within the space of a single week, Israeli officials have moved more than 5,000 apartments in east Jerusalem close to the stage where construction can begin, including a project that would build the first new Jewish settlement there in 15 years. With some other 4,000 apartments already being built or about to start, the pace is unprecedented, says Daniel Seidemann, an expert on Jerusalem construction.
Those 9,000 apartments would add almost 20 percent to the existing stock of 50,000 apartments built for Jews in east Jerusalem in the 45 years it has been occupied.
"In the last three months, we're looking at a surge like nothing we've seen in the past since 1967," when Israel captured east Jerusalem, said Seidemann, who views the construction as an obstacle to peace.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem, with its Palestinian population, immediately after capturing the territory from Jordan and began building housing developments for Jews there. The annexation has not been recognized internationally. Today, more than 200,000 Jews live in east Jerusalem alongside some 300,000 Palestinians.
Polls show a majority of Jewish Israelis favor holding on to all of Jerusalem, and construction in east Jerusalem has not stirred passionate opposition among Jewish Israelis. Most don't see the Jewish areas of east Jerusalem as illegitimate settlements — preferring to call them "Jewish neighborhoods" — whereas some in Israel vehemently oppose settlements in the West Bank.
Yet there is growing nervousness in Israel about the new east Jerusalem plans, with some fearing the current diplomatic woes could blossom into economic isolation as well, driven by the world community's clear impatience with Israel's settling of occupied land.
In the longer term, some in Israel warn, if a division is rendered impossible by filling the occupied sector with Jews, there will be no way to reach a deal on the West Bank as well. The area would be in effect absorbed into the Jewish state, rendering it more bi-national and — unless the Palestinians are given the vote — less democratic.
Palestinians have increasingly framed the issue in those terms, suggesting to Israelis that the construction runs against their own interests.
"The Israeli government is making the two-state solution impossible with this unprecedented settlement building," senior Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo said this week.
Netanyahu is forging ahead — and polls show that he remains poised for reelection next month. If anything, he is currently feeling heat from a surging religious party on his right.
"With God's help, we will continue to live and build in Jerusalem, which will remain united under Israeli sovereignty," he said at the campaign launch event of his Likud-Yisrael Beitenu list Tuesday night.
Such tough talk aims to assuage those on Netanyahu's right who are skeptical that everything in the east Jerusalem pipeline will be built, noting that some construction projects were unofficially frozen in the past under international pressure.
If officials do push ahead, the 9,000 could be built within a few years. Other major construction projects in east Jerusalem were either smaller or strung out over a decade, said Seidemann. Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, an anti-settlement watchdog group, also said the pace was unmatched.
According to Seidemann's figures on the major projects, the big push of the last decade was the Har Homa neighborhood, with 3,200 units built. In the 1990s, 2,200 apartments went up in Ramat Shlomo. In the 1980s, 11,000 apartments were built in Pisgat Zeev. In the 1970s, Israel started building the Neve Yaakov, Gilo, east Talpiyot and Ramot areas, and Seidemann estimates that around 20,000 apartments were built in those areas throughout that decade.
The Jerusalem municipality did not respond to multiple requests for its statistics on planned and actual construction
Netanyahu put settlement construction plans into high gear to punish the Palestinians for winning U.N. recognition of a de facto state of Palestine in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip last month. Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, but still controls the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
In peace talks, Palestinians privately have accepted former U.S. President Bill Clinton's 2000 proposal that Jewish areas of Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty under a peace accord, and Palestinian neighborhoods would become part of a Palestinian state.
At the same time, they have spent four decades watching Israeli construction permanently change the face of the city, and see every new housing project in east Jerusalem as yet another obstacle to building their capital there. Building for Arabs in the eastern sector has been limited since 1967, something Palestinians see as an attempt to stifle their presence in the city, though the current municipality denies any discrimination.
The expanding Jewish footprint in east Jerusalem also tightens Israeli control around the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the Old City, home to the most sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious sites in the Holy Land. A hilltop compound there is Islam's third-holiest site, revered as the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven in a nighttime journey told in the Quran. The same complex is the holiest site in Judaism, home to two biblical temples, with the Western Wall at its foot.
Palestinians have refused to return to the negotiating table unless Israel stops all construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, a condition Israel rejects. Talks deadlocked four years ago.
The renewed construction push in east Jerusalem has drawn international condemnation, as have plans to build more than 6,000 more homes for settlers in the adjacent West Bank, where more than 340,000 Jews live among 2.3 million Palestinians.
Last week, the United States used unusually blunt language to criticize the settlement activity, accusing its top Mideast ally of engaging in a "pattern of provocative action" and saying plans of new construction "run counter to the cause of peace."
The most contentious of these plans involves development of a corridor in the West Bank linking east Jerusalem and the Maaleh Adumim settlement. The Palestinians say this project, known as E1, would make it impossible for them to create a viable state because it would sever east Jerusalem from its West Bank hinterland and drive a deep wedge between the West Bank's northern and southern flanks.
Israel shelved the project for years under U.S. pressure, but started acting on plans to build 3,400 apartments there earlier this month. Netanyahu's aides have said construction is years away and his rivals have questioned whether he really intends to build. But the very fact that plans there are advancing has drawn ferocious criticism from Israel's closest Western allies.
Some of the projects closer to fruition would similarly hinder access from the West Bank. Following action last week, the government can soon ask developers to submit bids to build 2,610 apartments in the Givat Hamatos project — the first new settlement to be built in east Jerusalem since 1997. Once a bid is awarded, construction can begin, though it could take months, if not longer, to reach that point.
Within the following week, officials pushed two other projects totaling up to 2,700 apartments to that same stage.