As Netanyahu pushes for settlement freeze deal, suburban Ariel could be sticking point

Ariel, the fourth-largest Jewish settlement could prove to be one of the thorniest points of contention in border negotiations that the US hopes will boost stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

By , Correspondent

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    Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday. Ariel, the fourth-largest Jewish settlement could prove to be a sticking point in moving forward with stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
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With some 20,000 residents, a new performing arts center, and a university-in-the-making, this sprawling suburb has fashioned itself as an everyday Israeli city rather than a settlement of religious fundamentalists.

But because Ariel, the fourth-largest Jewish settlement, is located 11 miles deep into the West Bank, it could prove to be one of the thorniest points of contention in border negotiations that the US hopes will give momentum to stalled peace efforts.

The border talks may be imminent if the US and Israel can agree on the terms of a new three-month settlement freeze in order to lure the Palestinians back to the peace table. Palestinians see settlements such as Ariel as eating into an already diminished territory where they seek to establish a sovereign state of their own. But as the Israeli population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has burgeoned to more than half a million, a consensus has grown in Israel that the largest settlement blocs would be annexed under any peace deal.

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"Just focusing on the border, Ariel is a major problem because there are a lot people there," says Yossi Alpher, the co-editor of BitterLemons.org, an online opinion forum on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "By dint of smart politics, it's considered a consensus settlement: There are no fanatics there. People commute to Tel Aviv, they have a proto-university, and, here, they have a new cultural center.''

Ariel receives unusual support – even from Netanyahu

Indeed, amid the ebb and flow of peace efforts, Ariel residents have consoled themselves by asserting that their city is an irreversible fact based on size, and more recently, because of the new cultural institutions.

The recent establishment of those institutions has given Ariel, which lies further from Israel proper than other large settlements, an added soft-power prestige among Israelis that residents hope will tip the balance in favor of its annexation.

When a group of actors and playwrights from publicly funded theater companies said they wouldn't perform in Ariel's new performing arts center that opened this month because it was in a settlement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighed in.

"Those that boycott are cutting the flesh of us all,'' said Mr. Netanyahu last Sunday, even as he sought support from his cabinet for a freeze on settlement building. Chen Kedem, a spokeswoman for the city said the municipality received dozens of notes of support in response to the boycott. "We haven't gotten this much love in a long time.''

Controversy over a settlement freeze

Netanyahu and the US are finalizing an incentive package in exchange for the freeze, which would include $3 billion in US military aid. Israel also wants a promise that the US will never again ask for a settlement freeze again, though it is unclear whether Washington will commit to that.

Right-wing opponents of a freeze have used the delay in firming up American promises of additional aid to Israel to mount a counterattack and defeat the measure in Netanyahu's cabinet. More than half of the parliamentary caucus from the prime minister's political party has signed a petition against the freeze, putting pressure on cabinet ministers.

No matter what the compromise over the freeze, many Ariel residents do not expect the settlement to be razed under an eventual peace deal because Israel's rank and file identify with the suburb's secular population, who chose the location for economic reasons rather than ideology. Ariel is one of several larger settlement "blocs'' which Israeli politicians have pledged to annex as part of a peace deal – presumably in exchange for areas of Israel proper that would become incorporated in a Palestinian state.

"Ariel is not controversial. It’s not a far-flung settlement,'' says Eran Hershkowitz, a builder who has lived in Ariel for 27 years who says he supports a peace compromise with the Palestinians and understands Netanyahu's reasons for backing a freeze.

Mr. Herskowitz said that during the freeze on housing construction, he was working on new buildings at the Ariel University Center, whose campaign to become an accredited Israeli university is highly political. The Ariel resident called AUC a powerful lifeline for the city because most of its 12,000 students are from Israel proper. Even though the college hasn't been upgraded to university status, Ariel's standing has already gotten a boost: "It’s like Tel Aviv. It will be part of [Israel] in any agreement.''

International community opposed to Ariel

That's not the thinking of the international community, which views Ariel as an obstacle impeding the territorial contiguity of a Palestinian state and all settlements like it as violating international law. When the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last week reported about the authorization of 800 new housing units in Ariel, it helped fan a crisis with the US over settlement expansion. Several years ago, Israel bowed to US pressure not to carry out a plan to create an east-west corridor linking its West Bank security barrier to envelop Ariel on the Israeli side.

Israel could annex Ariel, but it would need to establish a narrow 11-mile long corridor along the present day four lane highway to Ariel which could be a strategic flashpoint in times of tension between the two neighbors. Widening the corridor to include smaller settlements in the area would add strategic territorial depth but would require Israel to swap more of its own land as a quid pro quo.

"If you attach Ariel at the end of a corridor, you have to hope this is going to be a peaceful coexistence between these two states,'' says Mr. Alpher, "because if it is not, and Ariel is a tempting target at the far eastern extremity of a narrow corridor, this is how [stability] could all unravel."

Ariel residents live amid well-manicured shrubs, uncertain future

Ariel residents have an easy commute to jobs in Israel's business heartland. The city's suburban boulevards boast well manicured shrubs. The performing arts center boast a metallic modern exterior. Up the road, the expanding would-be university is driving demand for apartments, say city officials.

When asked about a new settlement freeze and a border agreement that could leave Ariel outside of Israel, Mimi Cohen, became defensive.

"Ariel on the outside?'' asks Ms. Cohen, who – together with her husband – owns a Middle Eastern sandwich shop in Ariel's faded shopping center. At the same time, she acknowledged that any peace agreement would turn Ariel into an "enclave.''

Despite solidarity from politicians who support the performing arts center, the controversy disturbed some residents that the city might one day find itself in the middle of Palestine.

"If cultural figures don't want to perform here, it means that we aren't part of the state," says Rimona Pinchas, who has lived here for seven years. "For the first time Ariel is outside the consensus.''

RELATED: Five largest Israeli settlements: who lives there, and why

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