No one in the 44th floor suite of Manhattan’s Palace Hotel was surprised last Wednesday when the first question Israeli journalists asked during a briefing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not have to do with his address to the United Nations two days earlier, or Islamic State, or Iran, or even his just concluded meeting with US President Barack Obama.
No, the first question had to do with construction beyond the 1967 lines. Or, more precisely, the White House’s sharp – some went so far as to say unprecedented – response to two developments in Jerusalem: the news that another bureaucratic hurdle in the process to build a new development in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Hamatos had been passed, and the move by a number of Jewish families a day earlier into Jewish- bought property in Silwan.
The question surprised neither Netanyahu’s entourage sitting next to the prime minister on one side of a long table, nor the journalists facing them on the other side. What was surprising was the answer, and it was surprising on two counts.
First, it was unexpected because Netanyahu gave his reaction to the sharp White House censure in his name, coming out from behind the cloak of anonymity that has marked briefings by Israeli prime ministers to the traveling press on trips abroad dating back more than a dozen years. This briefing, including the response to this question, would be on record, and not only attributable to a “senior diplomatic source.”
And, secondly, the answer was surprising because of its tone: unusually combative in regards to the US; not couched in polite diplomatese.
Netanyahu – referring to the Silwan move – strongly rejected the premise that Arabs have the right to buy property throughout the capital, but Jews do not. And as for Givat Hamatos, he said that a large chunk of the development is reserved for Arabs, and that it was not a new settlement, but rather a neighborhood within the municipal boundaries of the capital. He recommended that American officials commenting on the matter learn the facts before issuing responses.
And that was his tame reaction. In ensuing interviews with six US television and radio networks where he was asked repeatedly about the matter, he was even more blunt.
To MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell he said he was frankly baffled by the US condemnation, and to CBS’s Bob Schieffer he said the US criticism did not “reflect American values.”
What sparked Netanyahu’s ire was a statement issued by White House spokesman Josh Earnest within minutes of Netanyahu’s leaving Obama and the White House.
Regarding Givat Hamatos, Earnest said, “the United States is deeply concerned by reports that the Israeli government has moved forward with the planning process in... a sensitive area of east Jerusalem.
“This step is contrary to Israel’s stated goal of negotiating a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians” he continued, “and it would send a very troubling message if they were to proceed with tenders or construction in that area.”
The spokesman warned that the development will “only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies, poison the atmosphere, not only with the Palestinians but also with the very Arab governments with which Prime Minister Netanyahu said he wanted to build relations.” He also said that the move “would call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to peaceful negotiated settlement with – with the Palestinians.”
And regarding Silwan, Earnest harshly condemned the “occupation of residential buildings in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sawan [sic] in east Jerusalem – this is near the old city – by individuals who are associated with an organization whose agenda, by definition, stokes tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Tough words, though ones obviously measured carefully. As, too, was Netanyahu’s response.
“Arabs in east Jerusalem, Palestinians, buy apartments, thousands of them, in Jewish neighborhoods in west Jerusalem,” Netanyahu told Schieffer on Sunday’s well-watched Face the Nation program.
“Nobody says you can’t do it.”
Netanyahu said there would be uproar in the US, if some place in the country Jews were told they could not buy apartments.
He then said that when the chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, urged his followers not to sell or rent apartments to Arabs in 2010, “I blasted him completely.
I don’t accept this thing. I mean, Jews can buy private homes in Arab neighborhoods; Arabs can buy private homes in Jewish neighborhoods. It’s their right.
“The idea that we have this ethnic purification as a condition for peace, I think it’s anti-peace,” he said. “I think it works against peace. I don’t think it’s a principle that should be condoned. It should be condemned.”
Netanyahu, in general, is not known for losing his composure, not when being heckled in the Knesset, nor when being asked tough questions on camera.
He generally chooses his words very carefully, and does not shoot from the hip, at least not in public.
And his response to the White House – first to the Israeli journalists, and then to American ones – was not said in a moment of pique. It is not as if he lost his head for a minute and called US policy “un-American.” These were thought-out phrases, ones that he repeated more than once.
They were also comments that further irked the Obama administration, which upon occasion feels free to publicly slam Israeli policy, but then is extremely thin-skinned when Israeli officials question US positions (think of the US anger earlier this year over any public Israeli criticism of US Secretary of State John Kerry). Netanyahu’s comment about American values prompted yet another testy retort by Earnest, who said it is precisely American values that has led the US to give Israel so much support over the years.
Which all leads to the a simple question: Why? Why did Netanyahu react as he did, inviting a public spat with the White House? Condemnations, even harsh condemnations, of Israeli building or building plans beyond the 1967 lines, or sharp censure of news of the mere pushing of one piece of paper from one committee to the next as part of the planning process for a project that has already been censured numerous times in the past, is routine. Very rarely does the prime minister respond directly to the condemnations, generally leaving that job either to unnamed sources in his office, or to Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman.
For instance, when the US sharply condemned Israel over plans to develop the E1 neighborhood of Ma’aleh Adumim in 2012, Netanyahu was largely silent. When Washington censured Israel for its declaration of a touch under 1,000 acres in Gush Etzion as state land last month, he was largely silent.
As is the case when the condemnations pour in for plans to build in the Jordan Valley, or in any other area in Judea and Samaria.
But this time not only did Netanyahu respond himself, but he did not shy away from going toe-to-toe with the White House over the issue. Why? Because this is Jerusalem.
Because he wanted to send an unmistakable message – not so much to Obama’s administration, but to the American people – that Jerusalem is different, that Jerusalem is the heart and soul of the Jewish people.
This was Netanyahu drawing a red line in the sand. This was Netanyahu making clear that when he says that Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of Israel, he actually means it. This was Netanyahu telling the American people that Israel does not intend to apologize for the “Judaizing” – as the Palestinians have often referred to it – of Jerusalem.
And Netanyahu felt able to forcefully stress this point for a couple of reasons. First, because he feels that he has the backing of the vast majority of the Jewish Israeli public on this issue. And when even Yair Lapid – Mr. Middle Israel – has said as recently as November that Jerusalem is Israel’s “founding ethos” and can never be divided, then Netanyahu has a leg upon which to stand.
Netanyahu picks his battles with Obama carefully, and only initiates them if he feels that most Israelis stand behind him. This was the case in 2011 when he locked horns with Obama over the president’s call for a return to the 1967 lines, though with mutually agreed land swaps, and it was the case this time as well.
The second reason Netanyahu felt able to forcefully take a stand on this issue has to do with politics. Netanyahu’s reaction to the White House about Jerusalem may, more than anything else we have seen over the past few weeks, be a true harbinger of new elections: maybe not next month, maybe not even in the winter, but soon.
Because this is Netanyahu. Netanyahu who in 1996 won the prime ministerial race against Shimon Peres on the slogan, “Peres will divide Jerusalem.”
“What’s he doing?,” some may have thought, when hearing Netanyahu’s tough response to the US last week. “How could he so publicly challenge the administration, especially now, when Israel will need US diplomatic cover at the UN to quell Palestinian moves?” How could he do it? Simple.
First, he actually believes it.
And, second, it is good politics.
Championing and defending Jerusalem, as Netanyahu has learned in the past, is not a bad ticket to run a campaign on.
And he may know something that the rest of us are only speculating about: the next campaign may be here sooner than we think.