A plan to link Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem that nine Israeli prime ministers have backed has been frozen for 28 years due to U.S. and European opposition. At the heart of the controversy is the competition between Israel and the Palestinians over continuity of construction—east-west (Israel) or north-south (Palestinians). And two questions: Will the construction prevent the future establishment of the Palestinian state, and could a “fabric-of-life road” get around the problem?
The E1 building plan envisions 3,500 housing units on an area of 12 square kilometers (4.6 square miles) between Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem. For Israeli governments over the years, it is seemingly the most commonly agreed-on building plan for the territories. Who has praised it and proclaimed its strategic necessity? Yitzhak Rabin (in both governments that he headed), Benjamin Netanyahu in all his terms as prime minister, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Shamir, Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak. And yet, despite this, it has been frozen.
In April 1994, a year before he was assassinated, Prime Minister Rabin gave Benny Kashriel, mayor of Ma’ale Adumim, the documents for the annexation of E1 to his town. But in the 28 years since, the plan has barely inched forward, due to heavy pressure from the international community, led by the United States,
The moments when it seemed to be moving faster through the planning channels were always before Israeli election campaigns, as part of the political game. There was also one such instance in November 2012, in Israel’s response to a U.N. General Assembly resolution recognizing “Palestine” as a non-member observer state. In all those cases, the plan was frozen anew after a short time.
Now the controversial plan is again in the headlines. The Jerusalem District Court, responding to a petition by Mayor Kashriel, has enjoined the political echelon—Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett—to convene the Complaints Subcommittee of the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria. The subcommittee can then continue hearing complaints about the plan from the left and the Palestinians, and Ma’ale Adumim officials can then respond to those complaints.
After a long freeze, the complaints procedure was surprisingly renewed, at the end of Netanyahu’s last term and on the eve of the latest election campaign. Last February, reacting to diplomatic pressure, Gantz and Bennett again froze the deliberations. However, Kashriel claimed to the District Court that such a procedure could not be halted once it had begun, and that if the political echelon still wants to take up diplomatic considerations, it can do so in the later stages of the approval process—for example, at the stage of certifying the plan. As mentioned, the court agreed with Kashriel, and early in July, the E1 plan’s opponents will start presenting their arguments—another small step through the primarily diplomatic obstacle course confronting the project.
What is the E1 plan? Why has it been frozen for 28 years? What displeases the Palestinians? And why does the international community regard it as an “obstacle to peace” and a wedge through the heart of a future Palestinian state?
The E1 building plan covers, as mentioned, an area of 12 square kilometers between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim, mostly state land to the north and west of the Jerusalem-Ma’ale Adumim road. With the plan, Israel seeks to link Ma’ale Adumim, established east of Jerusalem more than 40 years ago and now with 40,000 residents, to the Mount Scopus ridge, which is within Jerusalem’s jurisdiction.
Area E1 is intended to comprise three neighborhoods, and areas for commerce, industry and hotels. On the ground, plans have been advanced for only two neighborhoods, with 3,500 housing units. E1 is part of the Israeli settlement concept of “Greater Jerusalem,” which refers to the “Jerusalem belt” around the city’s boundaries, that Israel established after the Six-Day War. Government resolutions, governmental committees and several expert committees have dubbed this outer envelope the “Jerusalem Metropolis.”
The Jerusalem Metropolis, or Greater Jerusalem, derives its formal status from the many links—in various realms of life—that existed and still exist between Jerusalem, within its municipal boundaries, and the surrounding area. In the late 1990s, the Israeli government tried to give an official imprimatur to the natural interactions between Jerusalem and the nearby communities. Accordingly, the first Netanyahu government decided to establish an overarching municipality for Jerusalem and the Jewish communities in its metropolitan expanse. For diplomatic reasons, however (primarily U.S. opposition), the decision was not implemented.
The parts of E1, like Ma’ale Adumim itself, that are included in the Jerusalem Metropolis were supposed to be within the security fence. That, however, is not the case, again because of U.S. and European pressure stemming from fear that the fence, apart from its security role, will mark Israel’s future border before negotiations take place, something the Americans very strongly oppose.
E.U. and Palestinian objections
The central claim of the plan’s opponents is that building up E1 will obstruct continuity of Palestinian construction and traffic between Ramallah and Bethlehem, from north to south, thereby precluding the future establishment of a Palestinian state in all of Judea and Samaria. The United States and some countries of the European Union support the Palestinian stance. They say implementing the plan would be a unilateral move and create an irreversible fact on the ground in an area whose fate must be determined in negotiations between the sides.
All Israeli governments from Yitzhak Rabin to Naftali Bennett have supported the plan in principle because of the need to create an urban continuity between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim, leading to the Dead Sea and the Jordanian border. This position, as mentioned, is part of the Greater Jerusalem concept.
In talks with international officials, Israel points out that there has been large-scale illegal Palestinian construction between Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem along the Jerusalem-Jericho road and in the E1 zone itself for many years. This illegal activity—conducted in Area C of Judea and Samaria, which is under Israeli civil and security control as per the Oslo agreements—has already significantly narrowed the corridor through which the main traffic artery between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim runs. Additional illegal construction threatens to disrupt, and in the future perhaps preclude, Israeli continuity between the two cities.
According to the Israeli concept, avoidance of creating Israeli settlement continuity between the Jerusalem area from the west and the Ma’ale Adumim area from the east, leading to the Dead Sea, will inevitably give rise to a different, competing Palestinian continuity from north to south that will cancel out the plans for Israeli continuity. At present Israel is finding it very difficult to counteract such Palestinian continuity—for example, the Khan al-Ahmar squatter village affair along the strategic Jerusalem-Jericho road—because of the stance of the international community, which thwarts measures to stop the illegal building in the area. Indeed, as pointed out often in recent months, the Europeans themselves are involved in illegal construction activity in Area C.
The real dispute between the sides, without the formal terminology typically employed, can be summed up as follows: E1 is a strategic plan both sides regard as critical. Those who support a Palestinian state generally oppose E1; those who oppose a Palestinian state favor E1. It is a tug-of-war between two urban continuities—Israeli and Palestinian. The Palestinians want continuity from north to south; Israel wants continuity from west to east. The question is: who will go first and block the other? Meanwhile, in the contest over territory, the Palestinians lead in points and not as a knockout. They are both preventing Israel from building and succeeding, through the deliberate use of illegal building, to narrow the corridor that remains for Israeli building along the Jerusalem-Jericho road.
Israel is offering the Palestinians a solution to maintain transportation continuity between the northern and the southern West Bank: what Israel calls a “fabric-of-life road.” This road would run from north to south between Jerusalem and Gush Adumim (the Adumim bloc of Israeli communities), linking the northern and the southern West Bank. Theoretically, it could provide the Palestinians free movement from the Ramallah area to the Bethlehem area. (The land on which the road is supposed to run was expropriated by Israel 15 years ago from the villages of Abu Dis, Sawahera al-Sharqiya, Nabi Musa and Khan al-Ahmar.)
Yet this road, too, has long been politicized. For example, while Prime Minister Bennett was serving as defense minister in March 2020, he approved the “sovereignty road” project. Identical to the fabric-of-life road, this route would grant the Palestinians mobility between the Palestinian village of Al-Zaim and the Anata area while bypassing areas of Jewish settlement.
From the Hizmeh intersection to the Al-Zaim intersection, the fabric-of-life road is already partially paved—on two levels, one underground (in a tunnel), to separate Israeli and Palestinian traffic. But the rest of it, from the Al-Zaim intersection to Azariya, has been delayed, despite Bennett, as defense minister, approving it two years ago. One reason for the delay: those elements of the international community that oppose its completion fear that the road could bolster Israel’s claim that there is a transportation solution to the problem of Palestinian continuity—the same problem that, for now, is preventing the building of the Jewish neighborhoods in E1.
Some Palestinians oppose the fabric-of-life road because, they say, a transportation connection between the northern and the southern West Bank is not enough; there has to be continuous urban building. Israel, for its part, says the basic idea of the road—that it would not only enable transportation but could solve diplomatic problems—was initially accepted by the Palestinian Authority. (In the context of the Oslo Accords, P.A. representatives agreed to a “safe passage” between Gaza and the West Bank—a wide road that would be an alternative to territorial continuity.)
Another proposed transportation solution to the Palestinian objection to E1 would be a more eastern route, Highway 80, that would be paved east of Ma’ale Adumim. However, the Palestinians oppose this idea for similar reasons, and the highway remains on the drawing board.
The security dimension
Former Israeli president Reuven Rivlin asserted many years ago as Knesset speaker that if Yitzhak Rabin were alive, he would have issued a clear-cut directive to build E1. And indeed, the late prime minister is credited with saying that without E1, Ma’ale Adumim would be severed from Jerusalem and could turn into what Mount Scopus was from 1948 to 1967. In those years, Mount Scopus, home to the Hadassah Hospital and Hebrew University, was an Israeli enclave in the heart of an Arab area, accessible only by a narrow road. Rabin feared that if Israel did not link Jerusalem to Ma’ale Adumim with continuous Jewish settlement, it would suffer a similar fate. Rabin was the first prime minister to promote the E1 plan to create that continuity.
In the early 2000s, an extra-governmental team of experts, mainly professionals in urban planning and military issues, recommended that the government delineate the border of Jerusalem in a way that would ensure a continuity of Jewish neighborhoods. A secret document the team submitted to the Sharon government, which at that time became a policy-setting document for the political echelon, stated:
“Between the border that is delineated in the agreement and the border that is not delineated in the agreement, Israeli Jerusalem will include most of the Jewish satellite settlements that surround the city [Ma’ale Adumim, Givat Zeev and smaller community settlements]. The delineation of the border must ensure land reserves for the continued growth of the Jewish population in the added parts of Jerusalem…. The border must be capable of withstanding changing situations of security tension and enable, when needed, surveillance, impenetrability, and/or separation of populations…. The border of Jerusalem will encompass, as much as possible, areas that topographically dominate the Jewish neighborhoods…. The border of Jerusalem will ensure a physical continuity of Jewish neighborhoods.”
This recommendation by the team of experts—which the political echelon adopted—stated further: “The Palestinian population should be enabled to retain a continuous transportation link between Bethlehem and Ramallah outside the borders of Jerusalem. Where necessary, bridges or tunnels will be used, without transferring ownership of the land above the tunnels or under the bridges.”
This important recommendation directly touches upon the claim that the E1 plan precludes Palestinian continuity between the northern and the southern West Bank.
Israel’s bottom line
The need for strategic depth, as an aspect of defensible borders, is now recognized by most Israeli security and military professionals. That depth includes, among other things, sufficient space to deploy defensive forces that can maneuver within it, a reserve force that can mount a counterattack if necessary and adequate distance from the strategic home front.
In case of the reemergence of an eastern front that threatens Israel, the area between Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem – and further eastward, toward the Dead Sea—is a sine qua non for Israel’s strategic depth.
In times of instability and regime change in the Middle East, but in quieter periods as well, the reemergence of an eastern front cannot be ruled out. Hence, both in times of calm and tension, the strategic depth afforded by the land between Jerusalem on the one hand, and Ma’ale Adumim and the Dead Sea on the other, must be regarded as indispensable to the defense of Israel’s borders.
In the 1980s, security officials asserted that “the spatial dimension in the security context of defending Jerusalem must be such that it can contribute to military victory in a time of need.” They added: “It, therefore, must include territorial features that will help the IDF contend with the most extreme possible war scenarios, from a surprise on the part of the enemy to an offensive initiative by the IDF. Those features must give the IDF a containment capacity on the ground and in the air at the outskirts of Jerusalem, without the city itself being attacked.”
Other experts pointed out that in case of another war in the future, Israel must safeguard itself in two essential regards:
1. Control of the access roads to the city must remain in Israel’s hands.
2. Any war over the city must be waged on the way to it and not within it.
In May 2009, I published, as a Jerusalem Center researcher, a detailed report on the E1 plan. Its main conclusions remain valid today:
The linking of Jerusalem to Ma’ale Adumim is an overriding Israeli interest for several reasons:
1. As Prime Minister Rabin noted, Israel cannot allow Ma’ale Adumim to become like Mount Scopus in the 1948-1967 period, when the mount was an isolated Israeli enclave under U.N. custody, with only one road leading to it.
2. Israel cannot allow a situation to emerge of security and urban discontinuity between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim, or of Jerusalem’s reversion to a border-town status (as was the case before the Six-Day War) that would preclude the city’s eastward development.
3. Israel cannot tolerate a threat to the Jerusalem-Jericho road, upon which Palestinian construction is encroaching. This artery is of supreme security-strategic importance to Israel. In a time of war, it would enable the deployment of large numbers of troops and equipment to the Jordan Valley and northward, and the mobilization of forces to contend with a possible eastern front.
4. The area of Ma’ale Adumim, including E1, is part of the strategic depth that Israel requires in the context of defensible borders—again, in the face of a possible resurgence of an eastern front and to enable it to defend its capital, Jerusalem.
5. The area of settlement around Jerusalem, including Ma’ale Adumim, constitutes part of the metropolitan area of Jerusalem and of what is known as Greater Jerusalem. This area incorporates settlement and security as two vital, complementary components of the Israeli national interest.
6. There is an almost complete Israeli consensus on the need to link Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem via construction in E1 and on the need to retain this territory under Israeli sovereignty within the country’s permanent borders.
7. Nine prime ministers, from Rabin to Bennett, declared publicly that they would build in E1. Yet, except for the construction of the Judea-Samaria District police station, the process has not even begun, due to international opposition.
8. Time after time, Israeli leaders proclaim their commitment to Ma’ale Adumim and the building of E1. These same leaders, however, show great deference to the position of the United States, which keeps working to prevent construction in this area. This behavior harbors a built-in contradiction: on the one hand, the message is conveyed that Israel will build in E1 because it is vital to its interests to do so; on the other, through nonpublic diplomatic channels, world leaders are told that Israel will bow to the international community’s opposition to this construction. This behavior naturally makes it very difficult for Israeli public diplomacy to contend with the world’s and the Palestinians’ objections to the E1 plan.
Nadav Shragai is an author and journalist.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.