The sign in big, red Hebrew letters reads “Welcome to Mevasseret Adumim, the Harbinger of the Hills”. A three-lane road with roundabouts leads up the hill to a police station and street lamps line the flyover that links the new town to neighbouring Ma'aleh Adumim, one of the largest Jewish settlements in Israel.
There are no houses, cars or people in Mevasseret Adumim: it is a town laid out, waiting to be built. That is because international pressure has so far prevented construction from going ahead. The area is the last piece of open land linking Arab East Jerusalem to the West Bank and critics said that to develop it would bury the very notion of a two-state solution to the Middle East crisis.
According to reports in the Israeli media, the area has been earmarked for development under a secret accord between Binyamin Netanyahu, the new, conservative Israeli Prime Minister, and his ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman.
Better known under its old British mandate name, E1, it is the most controversial development project in the region, one that diplomats and observers warn will trigger the collapse of the weakened Palestinian Authority, or drive it into armed resistance again.
Israeli army radio reported that the deal was struck between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Lieberman as part of the negotiations to form a government, and it would allow 3,000 homes to be built on E1.
Critics said that building a combined Jewish settlement and national park in the hills of E1 would cut the West Bank in two. And blocking mainly Arab East Jerusalem from the West Bank it would make it impossible for the Palestinians to have that side of the disputed city as their capital.
Khalil Shikiaki, a leading Palestinian political analyst, said: .“Failure to respond in an effective manner could lead to the collapse of the nationalist camp [the Fatah-led branch of Palestinian politics] My guess is, confronted with this development, the nationalist camp would probably support violence. Given the current tends I think of this as a potential trigger to major clashes.”
That view was backed by a senior Western diplomat, who feared that developing E1, which the Bush Administration urged against, may encourage Hamas to try to take over the West Bank.
All the pieces are in place. Land has been levelled for housing, the roundabouts indicate that more roads will soon spread out across the wooded hills and the existing road network hints at the future shape of Jerusalem, according to Haim Erlich, an Israeli researcher for the co-existence group Ir Amin.
Mr Erlich points to the almost completed flyover crossing the Jerusalem to Jericho highway, which links E1 to Ma'aleh Adumim, sealing the gap of Jewish suburbs around East Jerusalem. Once the two are joined and then combined with smaller existing Jewish settlements and an industrial area farther out in the West Bank, the so-called Adumim block will have about 45,000 residents and cover more land than Tel Aviv, the second- largest Israeli city, he said.
“If they are really going to build E1, the meaning of that for the Palestinians will ... [mean] that the talks about a two-state solution are only on the level of theoretical talks,” Mr Erlich said. “It's the end of the idea of the two-state solution.”
Construction workers are also busy completing a walled-off road with no turnings into East Jerusalem, which will run from the southern West Bank to the northern part. This would allow Israel to argue that the Palestinians have territorial contiguity. Mr Erlich and others in the peace camp argue that it will effectively leave the West Bank divided.
The office of the mayor in Ma'aleh Adumim declined to comment on the plans but in a statement that was issued recently it said that the thousands of homes would constitute “contiguous construction between our city to the capital Jerusalem and will be the Zionist response that will prevent the division of Jerusalem and the dislocation of Ma'aleh Adumim and Gush Adumim [Adumim block] from the capital of Israel”.
The plans may be finalised under the Netanyahu Government but they were started two decades ago as part of the long-term Israeli strategy to secure the disputed city. A statement earlier this year from the Ministry of Defence, which has to approve all housing construction in the West Bank, made it clear that the state is not about to cede any of the area to the Palestinians.
“Ma'aleh Adumim is an inalienable part of Jerusalem and the State of Israel in any permanent settlement,” the statement, which was issued by the office of Ehud Barak, the Labour Party leader and Defence Minister in the previous and current governments, said. “E1 is a corridor that connects Ma'aleh Adumim to Mount Scopus [a longstanding Israeli pocket of land in East Jerusalem] and therefore it is important for it to remain part of the country. This is the position of Labour since Yitzhak Rabin and also of the Government of [Ehud]Barak in 1999, and the Americans know this position.”