ATARA, West Bank – It is billed as a symbol of the future Palestine: a modern, middle-class city of orderly streets, parks and shopping plazas rising in the hills of the West Bank, ready for independence, affluence and peace.
But the $800 million project has hit a snag: Palestinians say construction of the city of Rawabi depends on getting an access road, which can’t go ahead without Israeli permission.
At a time when the latest U.S.-brokered peace effort is in crisis, the tussle over road-building is a test of Israel’s willingness to give up much of the West Bank and allow Palestinian statehood to move forward.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he supports Rawabi’s construction, but Jewish settlers and their supporters in the Israeli government, who oppose the very idea of Palestinian statehood, want the whole project scrapped.
Rawabi, some 20 miles north of Jerusalem, is one of many West Bank projects, such as job-creating industrial zones and improved water supply, that have similarly been held up. But perhaps none has the symbolic value of Rawabi, where builders envision 40,000 Palestinians enjoying the comforts of an American suburb, instead of crowded and disorganized towns and villages with poor infrastructure.
The site was carefully chosen. It has no ancient religious relics for Jews and Arabs to quarrel over, and it lies in one of the Palestinian-administered areas of the West Bank where construction doesn’t need Israel’s permission.
Work crews broke ground on the site in January, to fanfare and predictions that the first residents could move in 2013.
Nine months later, bulldozers have carved some foundations and hillside roads, but little construction has taken place. Without the access road, builders say, the city isn’t worth building.
Many on both sides expect Rawabi to emerge as a bargaining chip in peace talks – suggesting the issue could drag on for years and turn investors off the project.