Badly needed living space or political provocation? No topic is more controversial in Israel than the construction of settlements - and whether they could signal an end to a two-state solution.
The Israeli response to the Palestinian diplomatic triumph was not long in coming. In late November, the Palestinians celebrated their new observer status in the United Nations. Shortly thereafter Israel gave the go-ahead for the construction of thousands of new homes in the occupied territories.
"You're going to the UN - so you get your reward laid out in front of you," was how Sylke Tempel, a Middle East expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), said she interprets the signal sent by the recently announced Israeli construction projects. Much of the housing is to be created east of Jerusalem.
Election campaigns and housing shortages
The largest construction project to be presented by the city council and the housing ministry had been in limbo since the 1990s, said Walter Klitz, director of the Jerusalem office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, which is affiliated with Germany's liberal, business-friendly Free Democratic Party. That these plans are being dusted off just now has much to do with parliamentary elections in January, he said. Opinion polls indicate that parties on the right can expect a massive increase in votes.
"This is the motivation of the current Netanyahu government, to reclaim the issue of new settlements - so they do not lose too many votes to fringe parties on the right," Klitz said.
The Israeli government's plan to expand existing settlements on the outskirts of Jerusalem will likely do more than to respond only to right-leaning voters. Over the last year, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to demonstrate against housing shortages and exorbitant rents. As a country of immigrants, Klitz said, Israel still needs housing.
Tempel said the settlements' location, often very close to Israeli territory, leads many people to fool themselves into thinking they are not on disputed lands.
Mayor recruits with a pleasant climate
More than 200,000 Jewish settlers live in East Jerusalem - in an area that resembles an ordinary suburb. For example, the Ma'ale Adumim settlement, located some five kilometers (3.1 miles) from the Jerusalem city limits. The mayor is campaigning for young families as well as Jewish-American seniors by emphasizing the easy access to the city and a pleasant climate, Tempel said - drawing a clear contrast to the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where 340,000 people live. These places usually "stick out like a sore thumb," she said: "Few Israelis would get the idea to move to the middle of the West Bank, near a large Palestinian city, to live out their political position. People doing this tend to come from an ideological settler movement."
Only the most visible obstacle to peace
Israel said it considers Jerusalem as its "indivisible" capital, while the Palestinians want to name the eastern part of the city - and with it the region of the planned Israeli settlements - the capital of their own state. The reactions have been harsh: "The settlers and the Israeli government should know that they will be held accountable," said a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - and reiterated that as an observer state at the UN, the Palestinians can now turn to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague for a ruling on the issue.
As to the consequences for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process Tempel said: "The new settlements have an enormous political signal effect because land the Palestinians consider theirs is being built on so visibly. But they are only one of many obstacles to peace."