Middle Eastern Tunnel Vision
by Jerold Auerbach
Imagine: until the Holland Tunnel was completed in 1927 New York and New Jersey had not been contiguous (defined in Webster’s as “have contact with”). Who knew?
The current Middle Eastern equivalent, generating worldwide outrage, is the projected loss of “contiguity” between the northern and southern West Bank if Israel proceeds with its recently disclosed plan to develop the hilltop area known as E1, between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim to the east. If implemented, furious critics allege, it would bisect the West Bank and doom any prospect of Palestinian statehood.
The Israeli plan has been endlessly excoriated since its announcement following the recent General Assembly vote to admit “Palestine” as a “non-member observer state”. The New York Times, in particular, has been relentless. In a front-page article (December 1), Jodi Rudoren proclaimed the plan a “surprise” that came as a “shock,” revealing Israel’s intention to wage “diplomatic war” over the future of the West Bank.
That was only the beginning. In a subsequent editorial (December 4) the Times lacerated Prime Minister Netanyahu (but not Palestinian Authority President Abbas) for a plan that could “doom the chances for a two-state solution” (which the Palestinians have rejected ever since the UN partition proposal of 1947). The E1 plan was “particularly disturbing” because it “would split the northern and southern parts of the West Bank.” Contiguity would be forever shattered.
The barrage increased a day later. Thomas Friedman ominously warned that “a huge bloc of settlements in the heart of the West Bank” (3000 housing units had been mentioned) would “sever any possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state.” Even Maureen Dowd, not known for her Middle East expertise, inserted in her column about Hilary Clinton a denunciation of Israel for its “brazen and counterproductive action.”
But the “contiguity” complaint is a sham, no matter how frequently it is reiterated. Haven’t critics heard of tunnels? Two centuries ago the Swiss built a 10-mile-long railroad tunnel through the Alps. Israel has a network of highway tunnels in the mountainous Haifa area. Hamas in Gaza is renowned for its tunnel links to Sinai. One need not be a rocket scientist (pun intended) to anticipate that development of E1 will include a tunnel to connect the northern and southern West Bank – also known as Judea and Samaria, the biblical homeland of the Jewish people, where 350,000 Israelis now live.
Critics also need a history lesson. The E1 area, comprising 4.6 square miles of Israeli state-owned land, belongs to Maale Adumim. E1 land is located inside Area C where, under the Oslo II Accords, Israel retains zoning and planning powers. Every prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin has supported its development. If there is any threat to contiguity, wrote Nadav Shagrai in Haaretz (2009), it comes from continuing illegal construction on E1 land by both Palestinians and Beduin.
The contiguity indictment complements the endlessly reiterated, but also false, allegation that Israeli settlements not only doom Palestinian statehood but also violate international law. Israel has legal claims dating back to 1922, when the League of Nations guaranteed to Jews the right of “close settlement” west of the Jordan River. This right was preserved under Article 80 of the United Nations Charter.
Jewish settlement since Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War does not violate international law because no foreign entity previously held legal sovereignty over the West Bank. Nor did Israel coercively “transfer” anyone to that territory, prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949). Settlers have merely followed the precedent set by generations of Zionist pioneers.
The looming crisis is not E1 but Israel’s increasingly precarious security situation. To be sure, Operation “Defensive Pillar” effectively shut down, at least for the moment, the decade-long rain of Hamas rockets. But Hamas, whose charter calls for the obliteration of Israel, has already begun to rebuild the tunnels that facilitate the flow of Iranian weapons into Gaza.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah is generously supplied with even more destructive Iranian missiles. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has vowed “open war until the elimination of Israel and until the death of the last Jew on earth.” Given Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threat to eliminate Israel “from the pages of history,” the menace to Israel from the east, especially given recent signs of political instability in Jordan, should not be taken lightly.
These geopolitical dangers are downplayed, if not ignored, by Israel’s critics. Currently obsessed by a tiny tract of land east of Jerusalem, years away from development, which can be traversed through a tunnel or bypassed by a highway, they incessantly berate and delegitimize Israel for settlements that under international law it has every right to build.
As one Israeli succinctly described the current squabble: “We will build and the world will scream.” That noise is the predictable side effect of tunnel vision.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews (2009) and Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena (2011)