netanyahu -  Itzik Ben-Malki - November 19 2010
Prime Minister Netanyahu at a conference in Haifa, November 2010. Photo by Itzik Ben-Malki
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly promised U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during his first visit to the White House in May 2009 that Israel would not build new neighborhoods in E1, a controversial area which connects Jerusalem to Ma'aleh Adumim.

Netanyahu's commitment is revealed in two documents from the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit Unit leaked to Al Jazeera TV.

In response, The Prime Minister's Office said that "Netanyahu did not make any commitment on the matter."

Israel has been planning for several years to build a neighborhood called Mevaseret Adumim in E1 that would include 3,500 housing units, as well as commercial and tourism facilities, in order to create an urban Jewish contiguity between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim, bolstering its hold on East Jerusalem by enveloping it with Jewish neighborhoods.

The United States strongly opposes the construction of this neighborhood, fearing that it would block the territorial contiguity of a future Palestinian state, splitting the West Bank into two and isolating East Jerusalem from the Palestinian population centers in the territories. This, the Americans fear, would undermine the chances of reaching a permanent settlement and establishing a Palestinian state.

In late May 2009, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas visited the White House. On June 2, 2009, Saeb Erekat, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, briefed staff in Ramallah on details of the visit.

"[President] Obama said he got Israel to commit to stop construction in E1 but nothing yet on home demolitions," Erekat is quoted as saying in the briefing. "[U.S. envoy] Mitchell said Obama was very tough with Bibi, [and] Clinton said the same. The meeting with the Israelis did not produce anything besides the commitment to stop E1 construction, but that is secret," Erekat is quoted as saying.

Two weeks later, on June 16, Erekat briefed a different group of advisers in the Negotiations Support Unit and repeated the message. "We gave Barack Obama a file that gave him all the details on this issue, on E1, on Ma'aleh Adumim, etc. Hillary Clinton told us that [construction in] E1 wasn't going to happen but to be quiet. She got something from the Israelis."

At the briefings, Erekat said that during Abbas's meetings at the White House, Obama was highly critical of Netanyahu and said that he had given him until July 1, 2009, to make his position clear on the principle of two states for two peoples, as well as on settlement construction.

Quoting Obama, Erekat said he told Abbas that "I cannot report anything to you, what we heard from the Israelis doesn't deserve your time."

In late July 2009, Aluf Benn reported in Haaretz that the U.S. administration told Netanyahu that construction in E1 would be "destructive." The Palestinian documents reveal that in response to the American message, Netanyahu promised to avoid building in that area.

But when Netanyahu launched his election campaign in Ma'aleh Adumim, he promised to move ahead with the controversial project.

"I will link Jerusalem to Ma'aleh Adumim through the neighborhood of Mevaseret Adumim, E1. I want to see neighborhoods in one contiguous Jewish construction," he said at the time.

On the eve of the formation of his government, it was reported that Netanyahu had agreed with Avigdor Lieberman, the chairman of Yisrael Beitenu, to allow construction in E1, but this was not included in the coalition agreement.

The documents show that when Abbas returned from the visit to Washington in late May, there was a sense of euphoria on the Palestinian side about Obama's attitude.

"The Washington I went to last week isn't the Washington I knew before," Erekat is quoted as saying.

In a meeting, Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Abbas that "Arabs and Muslims have only one thing on their mind: Palestine. I have 230,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and I am bringing back 10 each week draped in American flags or in wheelchairs. Because I want to bring them back home, a Palestinian state is a cardinal interest of the USA."

Erekat is quoted as saying that Obama told Abbas "the establishment of the Palestinian state is a must for me personally."

He also said that "Obama told [Netanyahu] that if the Israeli government coalition can't deliver, that's their problem. The U.S. needs an answer by July 1."

Erekat complained that "Netanyahu is going to burn the West Bank. He will give the green light in Gaza, let Hamas run loose, while burning the West Bank to show that AM can't deliver. Netanyahu is capable of anything."