By Jonathan Tobin, Commentary Magazine
The Israeli government is walking a fine line as it tries holding out against the Obama administration’s demand for a building freeze while simultaneously fending off charges that it is not interested in making peace with the Palestinians. The predictable result is confusion. The Netanyahu government’s defiance of the American diktat is contradicted by news reports about a de facto suspension of planning for projects by Israel in those parts of the city under Jordanian occupation between 1948 and 1967.
It isn’t clear whether the slow-down of Jewish construction in Jerusalem is merely an attempt by the government to ensure that it will not be taken unaware by housing announcements, as it was during the recent visit of Vice President Joe Biden, or by an actual freeze. But either way, it appears that Netanyahu’s desire to avoid giving a clearly hostile Obama any ammunition with which he can paint the Israelis as provocative or intransigent about peace is having an impact on the pace of building.
The American pressure on Jerusalem is a break from the past because no previous administration has ever made an issue of the building of homes for Jews in neighborhoods that were founded in the aftermath of the unification of the city in 1967. The United States has never recognized Israel’s sovereignty over any part of the city, including the parts that were held by the Jews at the time of the 1949 armistice that ended Israel’s War of Independence. But Obama breaks from past administrations when he insists that that Jewish neighborhoods in the city founded after 1967 are merely illegal “settlements,” no different from the most West Bank outpost. This is an implicit American endorsement of the Palestinian claim that any theoretical peace deal must hand over all of the area of Jerusalem that Israel took in 1967 (which is called East Jerusalem in the press but which actually comprises the northern, eastern and southern outskirts of the city), where today over 200,000 Jews live. After all, if “East Jerusalem” is truly disputed territory in America’s eyes, then Washington ought to be calling for a building freeze by both sides to the dispute. That is not the case, as home-building by Arabs in the area in which America demands a Jewish freeze continues at a breakneck pace.
This is, as Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said, “a slap in the face” to Israel. Barkat claims talk of Israel bending to Obama’s demand for a freeze in Jerusalem is unfounded. But although Israelis have consistently supported their government’s refusal to knuckle under to American attacks on the status of their capital, the impact of the dispute has created a narrative in which so-called Israeli “foot-dragging” is the principal obstacle to peace, not Palestinian intransigence.
That’s the impression that Washington has done everything it can to reinforce, but it is worth reiterating that such an impression is utterly false. While Netanyahu has agreed to a two-state solution and even agreed to a freeze on settlements in the West Bank, the Palestinians’ supposedly moderate leader Mahmoud Abbas won’t even sit and negotiate in the same room with the Israelis. Nor is there any reason to believe the so-called proximity talks that Obama is so eager to launch (so named because of the Palestinian refusal to negotiate directly with Israel) will lead to an agreement because Abbas has already rejected Israel’s offer of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem in 2008.
Obama’s war on Jerusalem has not brought peace closer. His pressure on Israel has helped to harden the Palestinians rejectionist position on Jerusalem as the call for a freeze in the city means the Palestinians are likely to demand an Israeli evacuation of the neighborhoods where U.S. officials treat Jewish housing starts as an “insult.” This has made the already dim prospects for peace even more unlikely. But one thing the administration has accomplished is to change the terms of argument about Jerusalem. The nerves of some Jewish Democrats may be calmed by the charm offensive that has led administration figures to fan out to Jewish groups and reassure them of the strength of the alliance with Israel in spite of the recent controversy. But by treating Jewish Jerusalem as just another illegal settlement, the president has done more in the last six weeks to undermine Israel’s hold on Jerusalem than a generation of Arab propaganda.