Israel to announce 5,000 new settler homes

Israel will announce construction plans for about 5,000 new housing units in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The plans include the 1,500 housing units announced Tuesday night to be constructed in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, Haaretz reported Thursday, as well as 2,500 new units throughout the West Bank in major settlement blocs and isolated settlements.

Lots for some 860 housing units will be sold to contractors for immediate construction in Ariel, Maaleh Adumim, Givat Zeev, Betar Ilit, Karnei Shomron and Elkana, which are part of the major settlement blocs.

Plans for the construction of 1,400 new units throughout the West Bank will be submitted to the Civil Administration’s planning committee. Construction would take several years.

Another 1,100 units, which had already been submitted to the Civil Administration’s planning committee, will be advanced, though it will take at least a year before construction begins, according to Haaretz.

Plans also were announced Tuesday to build a national park in areas east of the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus between the Palestinian neighborhoods of Isawiyah and A-Tur; and the Kedem Center, a tourism and archaeological center in the Palestinian village of Silwan opposite the entrance to the City of David.

Ophir Akunis, the Likud deputy minister for liaison with the Knesset, provided details of the settlement plans in a government meeting Wednesday that was picked up by the Israeli media.

The construction projects are meant to appease those who were against the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The freed prisoners had participated in terror attacks that killed Jews.

The plans were condemned by the Palestinian Authority and the U.S. State Department, as well as by United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon and the European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

West Bank outpost is legalized

The West Bank outpost of Bruchin received its charter, making it a legal settlement.

The town, located near Ariel and home to more than 100 families, is now part of the Samaria Regional Council.

The head of the Israel Defense Forces Central Command, Maj.-Gen. Nitzan Alon, signed an order Sunday giving the outpost legal status, The Jerusalem Post reported.

The change comes nearly four months after the Israeli government decided to legalize Bruchin and two other outposts—Sansana and Rechalim—which were founded in the 1990s on state land and with millions of dollars in assistance from the country’s Construction and Housing Ministry.

The European Union, the United Nations and the United States, as well as several other governments, condemned the legalization when it was announced in April.

Bruchin was highlighted as an illegal outpost in Israel’s Sasson Report published in 2005, which showed that millions of dollars were diverted from Israeli government agencies to build illegal settlements and outposts.

Support for Ariel school as university comes before vote

Israel’s Education Minister expressed public support for turning the university center at Ariel into a full university, and the Finance Ministry announced extra funding in advance of a committee vote on the issue.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz announced Sunday that his ministry would earmark extra funds for Ariel, so that it would not cut into the funding of Israel’s seven other universities.

Steinitz said he will ask the government to grant an allocation of some $5 million to $7.5 million for the next two fiscal years, with plans to increase the sum in future years.

He added that approving the upgrade would be “a historic move that would contribute a great deal to the academia in Israel and would even have an important contribution to culture, economy, society and the strengthening of Ariel.”

Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced his support for granting the Ariel school full university status on Sunday, saying it would be in line with previous Cabinet decisions on the school.

The Judea and Samaria Higher Education Council is set to vote Tuesday on Ariel’s status.

The vote will come after the Planning and Budgeting Committee of Israel’s Council for Higher Education recommended earlier this month to defer the decision until a comprehensive evaluation is undertaken in the next year, according to Israeli media reports.

In 2007, the Ariel academic center was granted temporary recognition as a so-called university center, and to reexamine its status within five years.

Last month the presidents of Israel’s seven existing universities called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to prevent the establishment of an eighth research university in Israel, citing a scarcity of resources. In a letter to Netanyahu the presidents said that an eighth university would deal a “fatal blow to the higher education system in general, and the universities in particular.”

Other public figures have opposed the upgrading of the Ariel center because it is located in the West Bank. The center has faced academic boycotts in the past.

The Ariel University Center has more than 10,000 students, both Jewish and Arab. Ariel, with a population of about 20,000, is located southwest of the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Report: Israel to subsidize 500 West Bank housing units

The Israeli government reportedly agreed to subsidize the construction of 500 new living units in the West Bank, despite saying it would not provide incentives to the settlements.

Sunday’s Associated Press report of the subsidies came hours before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Israel to talk to Israeli leaders about regional threats and issues, including the peace process. The Palestinians have said they will not return to the negotiating table until Israel halts all settlement construction.

The housing is in places that have been identified as national priority areas by the government, which makes them entitled to perks to assist in their development. At the beginning of the year, 70 settlements appeared on a government list of 550 communities identified as national priority areas.

Following complaints from the United States, the settlements were removed from the list, but a loophole allows them to receive the benefits if approved by political leaders, according to AP. Homes in Efrat, Beitar Illit and Ariel are slated to receive the subsidy.

“There are no special incentives whatsoever to encourage people to live in the West Bank,” government spokesman Mark Regev told AP. “The same conditions apply to 600 communities throughout the country.”

Bill would require services to West Bank

A bill making it illegal for companies to discriminate against customers based on where they live, including the West Bank, passed its initial reading in the Knesset.

The bill presented Wednesday could benefit West Bank cities and citizens, Haaretz reported.

The measure comes in the wake of the completion of a cultural center in the West Bank city of Ariel, which members of several Israeli theater companies have said they would not perform in and encouraged other theater professionals to boycott. It could force those actors and directors to work in the Ariel theater, labeling their actions as discriminatory, according to Haaretz.

“From time to time, services or products aren’t provided to populations living in specific locations, like the settlements in Judea and Samaria or Arab villages in the periphery,” the bill reads.

It also points out that at times when services are provided, they come at a higher price for those locations.

Sharon marks five years in coma

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remains in a coma five years after suffering a massive stroke.

There were no official events Tuesday to mark the five-year anniversary of the stroke, which ended Sharon’s political career. But he was briefly remembered Monday at a Likud Party briefing and in a column written by former colleague Tzachi Hanegbi in The Jerusalem Post.

Sharon remains hospitalized at the Sheba Medical Center of Tel Hashomer Hospital in Tel Aviv. He has returned home for weekend visits, according to reports.

L.A. donors play role in Israeli settlement

The city of Ariel is home to 19,000 Israelis, a university center of 12,000 students and a growing industrial park with 27 factories employing thousands of workers. The city’s backers describe Ariel as beautiful, diverse, peaceful. One repeat American visitor said, “It’s like driving into some San Diego suburb.”

But Ariel, whose nearly completed performing arts center recently became the subject of protest, is a Jewish settlement located in the heart of the West Bank, about 10 miles east of the pre-1967 border of Israel. It is within a region that may or may not become part of a future Palestinian state, because although Ariel is within commuting distance of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, two other major municipalities are geographically closer to the city-size settlement: the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Ramallah.

Established in 1978, Ariel has been aided in its growth by many generous American philanthropists, including a number from the Los Angeles Jewish community. Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman makes frequent trips to Los Angeles to raise funds for and awareness of Ariel. On his last visit here, he spoke from the bimah at Sinai Temple to nearly 1,000 congregants on a Shabbat morning.

Nachman, mayor since 1985, has done much to help cultivate relationships with Americans, who have dramatically strengthened Ariel and the Ariel University Center (AUC). Among the supporters are some of Los Angeles’ most well-known Jewish philanthropists. Real estate developer Larry Field estimates that he and his late wife, Eris, have given “a couple of million” dollars to the American Friends of Ariel over the past 15 years. Gifts from the Milken Family Foundation and the Lowell Milken Family Foundation to Ariel and the Ariel University Center add up to more than $2 million in 2006 and 2007 alone.

In late August, a group of Israeli theater professionals announced they would not appear at Ariel’s new performing arts center because of its West Bank location. The boycott set off a heated debate in Israel, made a few headlines internationally and recently garnered support from some American Jewish actors and writers.

Ariel’s supporters in Los Angeles, however, dismiss the controversy, and despite ongoing peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that could potentially redraw the boundaries of Israel, none seriously believe that Ariel will ever change hands.

“I think it’s nonsense,” Field said. “Even the Palestinians, in their last two times of drawing up what the West Bank would look like if it was given over to them, Ariel was one of the two major cities that was taken out of it.”

“Ariel is indeed within the consensus community,” said Avi Zimmerman, executive director of American Friends of Ariel. The understanding that Ariel is certain to remain part of Israel in any two-state settlement has helped to guide the L.A.-based philanthropists in their work. “We look at Ariel as part of the State of Israel, because the government of Israel looks at Ariel as part of the State of Israel,” said Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation and chairman of the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. (The upper campus of AUC is known as the Milken Family Campus.)

Others disagree. “Any assertion that a settlement is a matter of national consensus is questionable, since the settlements are the most controversial subject on the Israeli national agenda,” Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Journal. Gorenberg is the author of “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977” (Times Books, 2006). “Keeping Ariel as part of Israel would mean having a finger of Israeli territory sticking into the West Bank,” Gorenberg wrote. “Whatever the odds on keeping other blocs in Israeli hands, the chances of keeping Ariel are lower.”

Ariel isn’t the largest urban center beyond the Green Line. Ma’aleh Adumim’s population was just under 35,000 in 2008, and many tens of thousands of Israelis live in parts of East Jerusalem that were captured by Israel in 1967. But Ariel is more distant from cities within Israel’s pre-1967 borders than are these other developed areas.

Given the popular conception of what settlements look like, foreign visitors are often surprised by Ariel. Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, has taken U.S. senators and congressmen to Ariel. “They are always shocked that these are real cities,” Klein said of Ariel and the other large settlements in the West Bank. “They have these images of tents and one-room housing. They are shocked these are real cities — with schools and shopping centers.”

David N. Myers, chairman of UCLA’s history department, said that turning Ariel and other settlements into “real cities” is part of a broader effort to make Ariel feel “normal.” Ariel, Myers wrote in an e-mail, “has attempted to fashion itself as the ideal suburban bedroom community, and been quite successful. […] This work of normalization owes in no small part to the efforts of Ron Nachman. … He has repeatedly made the argument that Ariel is Israel no less than Tel Aviv, and Israeli politicians, for the most part, have listened.”

The American philanthropic dollars Nachman has helped bring to Ariel have helped make the city what it is today. “There are many projects that owe their entire existence and success to support from the United States,” said American Friends of Ariel’s Zimmerman. “It’s made the difference in terms of quality of life, and quality of education, and the quality of the different projects in our city.”

Perhaps no American Jewish family has been more supportive of Ariel than have the Milkens. “The Milken Foundation and the Milken family name appear on more buildings in Ariel than any other,” Zimmerman said.

“It’s not a political organization,” Sandler said of the Milken Family Foundation, which has been supporting schools in Ariel since the 1980s. “It’s no different than what we’ve always done,” he said, noting that the Milken family has supported every university in Israel. “We’ve always been involved in education, both here and in the State of Israel.”

Howard Lesner, executive director of Sinai Temple, echoed this apolitical theme when asked about the talk Nachman gave at the synagogue in April. “He [Nachman] basically came to give a message of what Ariel was. He didn’t talk about it in terms of it being a settlement. He didn’t talk about the political aspects of it. He talked about the growth of the city and encouraged people to visit,” Lesner said.

What happens to Ariel will impact the future of Israel and the future of any Palestinian state. The current 10-month moratorium on settlement building is set to expire on Sept. 26. Netanyahu has promised not to extend it; Abbas has said he will break off the talks if it is not extended.

“At this point in the current talks, the agenda itself is undecided,” Gorenberg wrote. “If and when borders are discussed, Ariel’s future will certainly be on the table.”

But Field, who has helped to establish “four or five projects” to improve Ariel’s quality of life — “We did a park, we did a gymnasium, we did a civic center,” he said — doesn’t believe Israel would ever walk away from Ariel. “I never thought it would be given up,” the philanthropist said.

And though the current controversy has generated much more heat in Israel than it has abroad, according to Ariel’s boosters, it hasn’t been felt much in the city itself.

“The same week in which there was this public outcry,” said Yigal Cohen-Orgad, the chancellor of Ariel University Center, “in that same week, we had two international conferences on our campus.”

Eldad Halachmi, also of AUC, said that the protest actually resulted in an increase in support for Ariel coming from elsewhere in Israel. “I was speaking to the mayor and to the manager of the new concert hall,” Halachmi said. “By now, he’s about to finish selling all the tickets for the season, maybe for the year.”