In real estate, location is everything. In politics, timing is critical. This week, location and timing came together at Givat Hamatos. The Israeli government agency that owns the land published a call for bids from developers to build more than 1,200 apartments on the hill. Bids are due by Jan. 18 — two days before Joe Biden will become president of the United States. The move is reckless exploitation of President Trump’s final days in power, and is a booby-trapped inauguration gift for Biden from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Givat Hamatos — which is Hebrew for “Airplane Hill” — is named for an Israeli warplane shot down there by Jordanian forces during the Six-Day War in June 1967. After the war, Israel annexed a piece of West Bank territory including East Jerusalem and nearby rural areas such as Givat Hamatos, adding all of them to the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem.
From the north side of the hill, you can see most of Jerusalem. To the south lies the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in the West Bank. To the east and west are two massive Jewish neighborhoods — otherwise known as settlements — that Israel has built on annexed land.
Building at Givat Hamatos will close the gap between the other two Israeli projects. The tall new buildings will complete a wall of Israeli housing that will divide Bethlehem and the southern West Bank from downtown East Jerusalem and the holy sites of the Old City. Givat Hamatos fits into the long-running pattern of Israeli construction in and around Jerusalem: It’s meant to cut off East Jerusalem and to break up the West Bank so that creating a contiguous Palestinian state is impossible.
There’s nothing hidden about this agenda. In a 2018 article published by the conservative Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, right-wing researcher Nadav Shragai wrote that building at Givat Hamatos would “prevent a second division” of Jerusalem and block the “Palestinians’ future goal of ‘East Jerusalem, capital of the Palestinian state.’ ”
Shragai correctly labeled Givat Hamatos a “strategic” neighborhood. Housing units there are weapons in a political battle. The strategic goal of Netanyahu and the Israeli right is to keep the West Bank and the Palestinians who live there under permanent Israeli rule. The right is blind to the cost in violated human rights and to the most likely long-term result: creation of a single state in which Jews are a minority.
Netanyahu has been able to ignore domestic criticism but not international pressure, especially from Washington. Planning authorities gave initial approval to building at Givat Hamatos in 2014. President Barack Obama’s administration responded harshly. The State Department said building the neighborhood would “distance Israel from even its closest allies” and “call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment” to negotiating peace with the Palestinians. European governments opposed and continue to oppose the plan.
Now, suddenly, the Israel Land Authority has asked for bids for Givat Hamatos. On the surface, when and where to build apartments is far below a prime minister’s concern. In reality, “this could not happen without Netanyahu’s knowledge and consent,” as Daniel Seidemann, a leading Israeli expert on East Jerusalem policy, told me.
The timing is deliberate. “These days are an opportunity that won’t return,” Miki Zohar, chair of the ruling coalition in the Knesset, tweeted — or crowed — after the ILA announcement. On one hand, Netanyahu is exploiting the U.S. interregnum, when the Trump administration appears willing to embrace the prime minister’s agenda more intensely than ever.
On the other, Netanyahu is creating a dilemma for Biden from the day he enters office. If Biden sends a strong message against building at Givat Hamatos, Netanyahu can instruct the bureaucracy to halt the project. But the prime minister might welcome a public confrontation. As during the Obama years, he’d tell his Israeli base that he’s the man who can best stand up to a hostile Democratic administration.
With so many other problems waiting, Biden could be tempted to postpone dealing with Netanyahu’s challenge. Yet if Biden ignores Givat Hamatos, Netanyahu is likely to go even further, speeding construction at the long-stalled E1 development that would link Jerusalem and the settlement of Maaleh Adumim to its east.
If Biden wants to restore a sensible U.S. policy of working for a two-state solution, he needs to tell Netanyahu, unequivocally, not to build at Givat Hamatos. If he can do so quietly, avoiding a public drama that will serve Netanyahu politically, all the better. The president-elect hasn’t chosen the time or the place for this fight, but he can’t avoid it.