In a week that witnessed a flood of announcements about construction beyond the
Green Line and corresponding angry denunciations from around the world, two
truths emerged: building in and around Jerusalem remains a potent Israeli
vote-getting tool, and the world’s tolerance level for Israeli construction
anywhere beyond the 1967 line has decreased dramatically over the
On Wednesday afternoon, before a luncheon at the King David Hotel
with the ambassadors and deputy ambassadors from 11 Asian and Pacific countries,
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took the envoys out to the veranda of the
storied hotel overlooking the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City and pledged, in
front of whirling cameras, to build in Jerusalem.
“I want to thank you
all for coming and it’s going to be a great opportunity to discuss the world
matters, regional matters – our quest for peace and security – and we have an
opportunity to speak about this in detail,” he told the envoys by way of
He could, of course, then have used the photo opportunity
to make a statement about those burning world and regional matters; about Iran’s
declaration that it would continue enriching uranium to 20 percent, or the
worsening situation in Syria, or a Hezbollah arms warehouse that exploded in a
crowded south Lebanon village or the state of affairs with the Palestinians.
Instead, he opted to discuss construction in Jerusalem.
“I do want to use
the opportunity that we’re here in this fantastic panorama to point out a simple
fact: The walls of Jerusalem that you see behind us represent the capital of the
Jewish people for 3,000 years,” he declared. “Jerusalem has been the capital of
the Jewish people for 3,000 years. All Israeli governments have built in
Jerusalem. We’re not going to change that.”
Among the envoys who listened
politely to Netanyahu’s words were the ambassadors of India and China, whose
countries a few hours later, after a UN Security Council briefing on the Middle
East, proceeded to issue statements denouncing Israel in the strongest possible
terms for its plans to build in Jerusalem.
India, with whom Israel enjoys
a very robust relationship, went even further, signing on to a statement with
Brazil and South Africa declaring that not only must Israel freeze settlement
construction, but it should dismantle settlements altogether, and do so not as
part of “concessions to be made in the course of negotiations” but because of
international law and previous Security Council resolutions.
It was clear
from the outset, therefore, that this group was not going to be convinced by
Netanyahu’s words about 3,000 years of Jewish history in the
Nevertheless, it was telling that of all the issues in all the
towns in the entire world that he could have talked about during this 90-second
photo opportunity, later digitalized and sent out to the media, Netanyahu chose
to focus on building in Jerusalem.
True, his comments were timely, since
various plans for various building projects had been meandering through various
national and local building and planning committees all week long. But the fact
that those very plans were now making their way through those channels –
attracting both domestic and international attention – is surely neither a
coincidence nor unrelated to the January 22 election.
comments to the ambassadors, like his comments pledging allegiance to
construction in Jerusalem a day earlier at a hesder yeshiva in Acre, had the
distinct ring of the campaign in them.
When Netanyahu says that
construction in Jerusalem neighborhoods built beyond the 1967 lines – Gilo,
Ramot, French Hill, Neveh Ya’acov, Pisgat Ze’ev, Har Homa and now Givat Hamatos
– is at the heart of the proverbial “Israeli consensus,” he knows very well of
what he speaks.
During his very first campaign for the premiership
against Shimon Peres in 1996, Netanyahu mounted a successful campaign around the
simple slogan: “Peres will divide Jerusalem.”
Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated some
six months earlier, suicide bus bombings were occurring on Israel’s streets, the
country had just completed Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon, yet the main
focus of Netanyahu’s campaign was Jerusalem. And it worked.
Netanyahu grabbed on to the Jerusalem theme at that time indicated the degree to
which he felt that the question of Jerusalem – and Israel’s control of the city
– resonated strongly and powerfully with the Israeli public.
running on a similar campaign this time as well, just more subtly and without
the negative packaging. It is not “Shelly will divide Jerusalem,” or “Tzipi will
split the capital,” but rather “I, Bibi, am building in Jerusalem.”
2009, when freshly elected US President Barack Obama called for a complete
Israeli settlement freeze – including in Jerusalem – polls showed the Israeli
public, contrary to what some in both Jerusalem and Washington had expected,
viewed such a demand as unreasonable and supported Netanyahu in pushing back
against even the US president over such a demand.
The same is true now.
The more Netanyahu announces building plans – in fact the more, Avigdor Liberman
denounces the Europeans for denouncing those building plans – the better the
Likud-led right-wing bloc does in the polls.
As American political
scientist Walter Russell Mead wrote on his blog this week for the foreign policy
publication American Interest
, “The European Union is huffing and puffing anew
about Jewish construction in East Jerusalem, all of which will no doubt smooth
the path to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s re-election. Running against
Europe and for Jerusalem is a no-brainer for an Israeli leader.
must be secretly blessing the EU foreign ministries for boosting his chances for
a stronger government.”
The huffing and puffing took the form this week
of a joint pronouncement from the four EU countries on the UN Security Council –
France, Britain, Germany and Portugal – denouncing in extremely strong terms the
spate of settlement construction announcements.
The EU’s foreign policy
chief, Catherine Ashton, even issued a veiled threat, saying in a statement
Thursday that “the EU will closely monitor the situation and its broader
implications, and act accordingly.”
Mead noted that if the European goal
was to slow the construction of new housing as part of a plan to reopen
negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority, they “should
have saved their threats and ultimatums for after the election, when Netanyahu
will be more interested in policy than in politics.”
“As it is,” he
continued, “the Europeans are providing a big boost to the Israeli Right and are
making it harder for negotiations after the elections. This ineptness should not
be a surprise: various European governments have been trying for decades to get
a bigger role in the peace process but have made no progress in all of that
time. Perhaps at some point they will tire of failure and start re-examining the
presuppositions of their policy.”
One European diplomat in Israel, asked
whether is was clear that the EU’s fierce protestations over the settlement
construction was not being used by Netanyahu for his electoral benefit, replied
that just as Netanyahu has his domestic concerns, the Europeans have theirs as
well and that this issue was very important to some key constituencies in those
European countries shouting the loudest against building in the
It is the end of the year, he pointed out, and in Europe there
are endof the year debates in parliament, where governments are being asked by
various parties why they continue to turn a blind eye to Israel’s settlement
construction. This issue has a domestic political dimension not only in Israel,
he pointed out, but in some key European countries as well.
also acknowledged something else: that the European outcry is greater and more
forceful now than in the past, which a reflection of the second truth revealed
this week – that there is considerably less tolerance around the world now for
settlement construction anywhere.
While Israeli leaders and spokespeople
say that “everyone knows” that the post-1967 neighborhoods in Jerusalem and the
large settlement blocks like Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel will be a
part of Israel in any future agreements, the fierce European and US responses
this week to the construction announcements should be an indication that they
are not on board.
There is a real dissonance between Israel’s assertions
that “everyone knows” and the reactions overseas, which indicate that not
everyone knows – or agrees – that Gush Etzion, Ma’aleh Adumim or even Har Homa
will remain in Israeli hands in any agreement.
The US, which on Wednesday
showed it did indeed “have Israel's back” at the UN by preventing the passage of
a resolution or even a presidential statement in the Security Council over the
flurry of settlement announcements, did so only after calling such actions a
“With regard to the larger settlement issue and statements
recently and actions on the ground, we are deeply disappointed that Israel
insists on continuing this pattern of provocative action,” State Department
spokeswoman Victoria Noland said on Tuesday. “These repeated announcements and
plans of new construction run counter to the cause of peace. Israel’s leaders
continually say that they support a path towards a two-state solution, yet these
actions only put that goal further at risk.”
What is telling is that
these “provocative” steps are not taking place deep in densely populated
Palestinian areas, a hill away from Ramallah, Jenin or Hebron, but rather 10
minutes from the Knesset.
And that is a shift that indicates that the
Palestinian narrative – that all such building is a threat to an eventual peace
agreement – is getting much more traction abroad than Israel’s argument that
these neighborhoods are going to be a part of Israel anyway.
There was a
time, some 20 years ago, when the battles with the US administration over
construction beyond the Green Line had to do with the building of new
settlements well inside Judea and Samaria. For instance, in May 1991, when
former secretary of state James Baker famously told a House Committee that
Israeli settlements form the biggest obstacle to peace and that each of his four
recent visits to the region was greeted by announcements of new settlement
activity, he was referring to the establishment of new settlements like Revava –
not building in Neveh Ya’acov or Gilo.
Truth be told, this shift in US
policy to viewing Har Homa as it does Har Bracha did not begin with the Obama
administration, but rather with the Bush administration. Condoleezza Rice was
the first US secretary of state to call the post-’67 neighborhoods
“settlements,” using that term in 2008 to denounce construction plans in Har
And this trend is even more pronounced among the Europeans, for
whom every new house beyond the Green Line is seen almost as a personal affront
that calls into question Israel’s commitment to what is increasingly seen in
their eyes as a key European strategic interest.
As the EU’s
under-the-radar envoy to the Middle East Andreas Reinke told Deputy Foreign
Minister Danny Ayalon this week, the Middle East is Europe’s southern neighbor,
a destabilized Middle East is bad for Europe and Israeli-Palestinian peace based
on a two-state solution is an important factor in stabilizing the Middle East.
Therefore, a two-state solution is seen by the EU as very much in its own
national security interests, and anything – like the settlements – seen as
obstructing that goal will be roundly and loudly condemned by the
According to one senior Israeli diplomatic official, what
further exacerbates the situation is that while all the construction
announcements are being made, there is absolutely no diplomatic process taking
In the past, the official said, when Israel announced construction
plans, the world would scream and shout but then it would pass. Part of the
reason was because there was something else happening, there was some initiative
out there moving the ball forward.
Now, however, there is nothing; no
“peace dynamic,” no initiative, not even a dialogue with the Europeans – who so
want to be involved in the “peace process” – on how to move ahead.
there is is building – or, more precisely, announcements of building – in east
Jerusalem. That is the only game in town, and as the only game in town it draws
all eyes, all the attention: negative attention and boos from the world, but
positive attention and applause from the home crowd. That, at least, is
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