The Settlement That Broke the Two-State Solution

Ma'aleh Adumim symbolizes why Middle East peace may no longer be possible.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

MA’ALEH ADUMIM, West Bank — When you drive out on the highway to the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim from Jerusalem, you’re driving through big sky country. After passing Jerusalem’s new Jewish neighborhoods and old Arab villages, all you’ve got on either side of you are the soft hills of the Judean desert. Emptiness, except for the unseen Bedouins. But very soon, you see a long, long line of beige houses and apartment buildings on the ridge of a steep hill, stretching nearly from one end of your field of vision to the other. Welcome to Ma’aleh Adumim.

The population is 40,000 — but if someone told me it was 400,000, I’d believe it. It is huge, monumental: Long, sweeping roads lead up the hill to its entrances, and wide avenues course up and down beautifully landscaped neighborhoods built from Jerusalem stone. Ma’aleh Adumim, founded in 1975, does not look like anybody’s idea of a settlement. It is truly an Israeli city, and it looks invulnerable to U.N. resolutions.

Ma’aleh Adumim is a stick in the eye of Palestinian attempts to build a state in the West Bank. And its very presence is spurring further Israeli construction: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent threat to build a sprawling, 3,500-unit housing project linking the settlement with Jerusalem has provoked expressions of outrage and distrust from Brussels and, in much more restrained tones, from Washington. The latest diplomatic skirmish was set off after European foreign ministers, in no uncertain terms, warned of the disastrous effects of the so-called "E-1 plan" on the prospects for a two-state solution.

Western diplomats fret that E-1 construction will drive a stone wedge through the heart of the would-be Palestinian state — cutting off Palestinians’ access to East Jerusalem, their hoped-for capital. But this misses the point: The presence of Ma’aleh Adumim makes E-1, or something like it, inevitable. Israel has no intention of letting this city go in any sort of peace agreement, and it’s not going to let it remain as an isolated Jewish enclave linked to the capital by a thin, three-mile stretch of highway with nothing but Palestine on either side. The world has remained on the sidelines these last 37 years during the construction of Ma’aleh Adumim. It’s a little late in the game to go complaining about E-1.

Besides, who says this settlement, the third most populous in the West Bank, isn’t already a stake in the heart of a prospective Palestinian state, even without E-1?  "Ma’aleh Adumim was established to break Palestinian contiguity," Benny Kashriel, the town’s mayor since 1992, told the Jerusalem Report in 2004. "It is Jerusalem’s connection to the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley [on the other side of the West Bank from Jerusalem]; if we weren’t here, Palestinians could connect their villages and close off the roads." (Kashriel declined to be interviewed for this article; the City Hall spokesman said local officials had talked enough to the media about E-1.)

This West Bank settlement functions as a suburb, or satellite city of the capital, and that’s how the residents — as well as Israelis at large — see it. 

"It’s too big to be a settlement," says Yael Benayoun, a native-born 16-year old girl shopping in the gleaming mall in the heart of town. She and her friend, Etti Lazar, also 16, say they can’t imagine Ma’aleh Adumim ever ceasing to exist, like the settlements of Gaza that were destroyed in 2005, or those of Sinai that were bulldozed in 1982. "There’s no place to put everyone," Lazar says. Indeed, there are roughly five times more Israeli settlers in Ma’aleh Adumim than there were in all of Gaza, and eight times more than there were in Sinai.

Nor is there a constituency in Israel for relinquishing Ma’aleh Adumim in any peace deal. The city is considered by all Israeli Jews, except those on the marginal non-Zionist left, to be a "settlement bloc" — one close to the pre-1967 border that must be retained in a final agreement through land swaps with the Palestinians. With its large population and proximity to Jerusalem, the settlement sits snugly within the revered national "consensus" as permanently protected Israeli territory.

The birth of Ma’aleh Adumim also speaks to the support it enjoys across the Israeli political spectrum. Following the conquest of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War, Israel built an inner ring of Jewish neighborhoods on the eastern part of the city to "strengthen" and "protect," in nationalistic terminology, the holy city from ever being "divided" again. The outer ring was made up of Givat Ze’ev lay to the north, Efrat to the south, and Ma’aleh Adumim to the east.

"This was the plan of the doves of the Labor Party of that time," explains historian Meron Benvenisti, who was a deputy mayor of Jerusalem in the 1970s. "To keep the land around Jerusalem and give the rest back to Jordan. Nobody was talking about the Palestinians back then."

Indeed, none of this started with Netanyahu, or even with Likud — it started with the Labor Party, the party of peace process devotees Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, the party that later midwifed the Oslo peace accords with Yasir Arafat. E-1 didn’t start with Netanyahu, either — it started with Rabin in 1994, who, according to the Jerusalem Post, "provided then-mayor Benny Kashriel with annexation documents for the E1 area." 

In the marble-trimmed lobby of Ma’aleh Adumim’s City Hall, the walls are lined with photos of Kashriel hosting prime ministers going back to Yitzhak Shamir. In one photo, Kashriel holds a pen over a map of the region, showing Rabin the lay of the land. The message is clear: This is consensus Israeli territory you’re standing on — left-to-right, decade after decade. 

The only problem people in Ma’aleh Adumim seem to have with E-1 is that it’s only in the planning stages. "Bibi’s bluffing. He’s never going to build E-1 because of the international pressure," a real estate agent in the mall told me. "We only wish he would build it — do you know what the construction of 3,500 more homes would do for our economy?"

Netanyahu’s unfreezing of plans for E-1 was his immediate punishment of the Palestinians and the "international community" for the Nov. 29 U.N. vote to grant Palestine non-member observer state status. He has followed that with high-profile plans to build about 5,000 housing units in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and West Bank settlements (though not in Ma’aleh Adumim, to the locals’ great disappointment). A typical reaction came from the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who said the expansion plans "seriously undermine the prospects of a negotiated resolution … by jeopardizing the possibility of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state and of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states."

"It’s nonsense," Benvenisti retorts. "People want to believe there’s hope for the two-state solution, they believe it’s the only game in town. Forget it."

Benvenisti has traveled a long ideological road since his time as Jerusalem deputy mayor, moving from a proponent of the two-state solution to an advocate of a binational state encompassing Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, with full political equality for Jews and Arabs. In the early 1980s, he founded an organization that tracked the growth of West Bank settlements. "I started when there were 20,000 settlers and said that when they reached 100,000, the settlements will be irreversible," he says. The number passed 100,000 before Oslo, and today there are upwards of 350,000 — not counting the Jewish residents of East Jerusalem, who number another 200,000. Benvenisti, once dismissed as a congenital pessimist, is now seen as a realist who was ahead of his time — a prophet of doom whom history seems to have proven right.

"You can’t build a Palestinian state in the West Bank — the settlements [and road infrastructure built for them] have permanently cantonized the territory," he avers. "Yes, E-1 will certainly cut Jerusalem off from Ramallah in the north and Hebron in the south — but they’re already cut off."

He keeps going, ticking off the other fractures on the land where Palestinians hope to build their state: Jenin and Nablus are similarly cut off, he says. Netanyahu’s plans to build a settlement in southern Jerusalem will sever the city’s links to Bethlehem. "All this talk about a two-state solution, about a viable, contiguous Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem — who’s kidding whom?"

I ask Benvenisti where he would rank Ma’aleh Adumim among settlements on a scale of strategic obstructionism. "There all the same," he replies. And despite half a century of international wailing, none of them looks vulnerable.

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