In the leadup to President Joe Biden’s July visit to Israel, Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s interim government looked like it was headed for a collision with the United States over the controversial settlement plan known as E1. From its origins in the 1990s, this massive housing plan has been a red line in Washington and European capitals due to its location east of Jerusalem – building there would bisect the West Bank, significantly complicating prospects for a contiguous Palestinian state. For this, E1 has earned the moniker of a “doomsday settlement.”
Before the president’s Middle East trip in July, a hearing on objections to building in E1 was scheduled for July 18, three days after Biden was to leave Israel. The hearing, held before the Israeli Civil Administration’s Higher Planning Committee, is effectively the penultimate step in the settlement planning process. The proximity of that meeting to Biden’s visit gave Lapid an easy excuse to pull E1 from the agenda. Previous Israeli governments, including those led by Benjamin Netanyahu, have done precisely that. Yet whereas even Netanyahu took E1 off the docket altogether, under Lapid, Israel merely moved the meeting up to September 12, leaving the doomsday clock at five minutes to midnight rather than resetting it.
With September upon us and with the new hearing date fast approaching, it’s worth asking why the apparent lack of urgency and decisive action.
The electoral context cannot be ignored – it’s possible Lapid is leery of alienating right-wing voters. Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who is trying to position himself as an alternative to both Lapid and Netanyahu and whose signature is required to move a plan ahead, may feel similarly. But an August survey from the Israel Democracy Institute shows that just 11% prioritize “foreign policy and security issues” – broadly defined – in determining who to cast their ballot for. Those who specifically care about settlements likely constitute an even smaller subset of this group, and for the minority who are single-issue settlement voters, Lapid and Gantz have almost certainly been branded too left-wing already.
The Biden administration will nevertheless want to avoid the impression of tipping the scales in an Israeli campaign season. On top of that, a publicized fight over a settlement project whose impact is seen as theoretical will not be a priority for the White House when very real disagreements are already brewing between the US and Israel over a potential new Iran nuclear deal.
The lack of focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is telling, in any case. While questions of the economy and cost of living often overshadow Israeli-Palestinian issues in the minds of Israeli voters, the indifference is even trickling down to those parties and politicians who have historically been most vocal about settlements. Leaders in the Meretz and Labor parties have been mum about the issue over the summer and approaching the new September hearing date. That silence speaks volumes when juxtaposed against the tone of their previous critiques of E1: a decade ago, Meretz’s Zehava Galon called building there “crazy and irresponsible,” while Labor’s Merav Michaeli accused the government of “playing a game with human life.”
Of course, there is the increasing emphasis on personality and process over policy in Israeli politics. Perhaps Gantz or Gadi Eisenkot might speak out more vocally about E1, but would they do so at the risk of alienating their right-wing political partners Gideon Sa’ar and Matan Kahana? When the race is about whether one supports or opposes Netanyahu, or whether one supports democratic institutions inside Green-Line Israel, it is easy for an issue like E1 to evade notice.
Perhaps it’s because the “doomsday settlement” label packs less of a punch these days. Leftists and human rights activists will continue to oppose settlements for a variety of reasons: the politics of the settler movement, the settlements’ disruptive impact on Palestinian daily life and transit through the occupied territories, and so on. Israelis on the center and center-right like Lapid and Gantz, respectively, may see settlements as not worth trouble with the Palestinians or the US (especially in light of the JCPOA), or at the very least not feel ideologically invested in their success. But which settlements are particularly bad is a question that most matters to those who care about drawing a line on a map. E1 was last canceled in the context of the Kerry peace initiative; the remoteness of a two-state outcome in the near-term takes the wind out of any effort to cancel E1 altogether.
None of this means E1 is destined to move forward in September. The election is as good an excuse as any for an anti-annexation prime minister like Yair Lapid to kick the can down the road. Whether that means removing E1 from the agenda or simply postponing discussion again will hinge upon a number of factors, including Israeli officials’ perception of the threat posed by such a project. But merely moving the date up another month (or several) means E1 will be back sooner rather than later.
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