By Jonathan Ferziger
May 14 (Bloomberg) -- On a West Bank plateau overlooking the desert road to Jericho, crews are building cottages and paving streets for a new neighborhood in Maale Adumim, Israel’s biggest settlement.
A town of 35,000 with a suburban-style shopping mall, Maale Adumim is one of about two dozen settlements Israel is expanding in the face of demands from U.S. and European leaders to halt construction. The push has helped increase the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, where Palestinians hope to create a state, by 40 percent in the last seven years to almost 300,000.
Settlements will be on the agenda when President Barack Obama, who supports Palestinian statehood, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is skeptical about it, meet at the White House next week. Vice President Joe Biden told Israel supporters in Washington on May 5 that settlement-construction must stop, the strongest statement on the subject so far from the administration.
“If Obama seriously expects a breakthrough, he’s going to have to keep the pressure on Netanyahu and test his commitment to a solution the Palestinians can live with,” said Yoram Meital, chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. “It’s going to be very hard to get Netanyahu to agree to a complete freeze on settlement-building.”
Jewish settlers, with the backing of prior Israeli governments, have built in the West Bank since 1967, just months after Israel captured the territory in a war with its Arab neighbors. They are driven in part by the belief that populating biblical Israel is a religious imperative. For Palestinians, the land is stolen and settlements represent a direct threat to their dream of creating a state.
Successive Israeli governments have refrained from building any new settlements while allowing, and in some cases encouraging, existing ones to expand. In addition, settlers have built close to 100 wildcat outposts in the West Bank under government threats that they will be closed.
While most of the recent expansion of existing settlements has been near Jerusalem, large-scale projects are also under way in such places as Maale Shomron, far north of the city, and Modiin Illit, closer to Tel Aviv. Construction this year has accelerated throughout the West Bank, even in such far-flung settlements as Halamish and Rehalim, near Nablus, said Dror Etkes of the Yesh Din organization, a group of Israelis who defend Palestinian rights.
‘Most Daring Expansion’
“This has been the greatest and most daring expansion in the past six years,” Etkes said.
Previous Israeli governments have insisted on retaining large clusters of settlements near the 1967 war border in any peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority, and proposed swapping parts of sovereign Israeli territory in exchange.
Zalman Shoval, a Netanyahu foreign policy adviser and former ambassador to the U.S., says the new government won’t build any new settlements. Those near Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, will be allowed to expand, though.
“Almost no Israeli political party regards Jerusalem and its suburbs as settlements,” Shoval said.
The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, intends to build its own capital in Jerusalem and considers Maale Adumim as illegal as any of the other 121 West Bank settlements, said Saeb Erekat, a negotiator for the authority. The Palestinians hope to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza, home to about 4 million people.
“When we see that settlements continue to be built, it shuts down virtually any hope that Israel will accept a two- state solution,” said Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council who came in second to Mahmoud Abbas in the 2005 presidential election. “It has the potential to bring about a very serious confrontation.”
West Bank Israeli leaders are betting that Netanyahu, 59, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lives in the settlement of Nokdim, will actively encourage new construction in current settlements.
In Ariel, the largest settlement in the northern West Bank, Mayor Ron Nachman has raised funds from wealthy American supporters to spruce up the city. The mayor often holds court at the cappuccino bar in Ariel’s $8 million John Hagee Sports Center, built largely with contributions from the San Antonio- based Christian televangelist for whom it was named.
Then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain severed ties with Hagee last year after a recording surfaced in which the televangelist said God’s will was at work in the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism.
Closer to Nachman’s office is the Milken Family Cultural Center, a gift from junk-bond pioneer Michael Milken and his brother, Lowell.
“They help us to survive,” Nachman said.
Even with Netanyahu’s record of support, some settler leaders are concerned he won’t buck pressure from Obama, 47, to halt construction.
“Outside of Arab terror and Iran, the United States is Israel’s biggest problem,” said Benny Katzover, a founder of the Elon Moreh settlement east of Nablus.
While the new neighborhood in Maale Adumim is crawling with bulldozers, steamrollers and building crews, Palestinian leaders are most alarmed by Israeli plans to build more than 1,000 new homes and a network of roads on a nearby hilltop known as the E- 1 area. The project, which Lieberman has pledged to finish, would impede access for Palestinians between the northern and southern West Bank.
“If Netanyahu goes ahead with it,” Erekat said, “Mr. Obama can kiss all his plans for the region goodbye.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Jonathan Ferziger in Maale Adumim through the Tel Aviv newsroom at email@example.com