Bibi's capital offense

By caving into US dictates and refusing to stand by Israel's rights to East Jerusalem, Netanyahu is betraying his voters and undermining the country's capital claim.

Construction in Har Homa 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Construction in Har Homa 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Palestinian leaders love to excoriate Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in public, but in private, they must be cheering him on. For no previous Israeli prime minister has done anywhere near as much to weaken Israel’s claim to Jerusalem.
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Granted, Netanyahu publicly proclaims his opposition to dividing the city, whereas two of his predecessors, former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, publicly offered the Palestinians large chunks of it. But at least Barak and Olmert did nothing to undermine Israel’s claim to the large Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that they intended to keep.
Netanyahu, in contrast, has become the first Israeli prime minister ever to accept the idea that Israel has no right to build anywhere in the eastern part of its capital city. At Washington’s behest, he instituted an undeclared but sweeping construction freeze in all these neighborhoods that has been in force for over a year now. In so doing, he has effectively announced that contrary to the policy of all Israeli governments since 1967, he does not view East Jerusalem as sovereign Israeli territory. For if it were truly Israeli, Israel would not need Washington’s permission to build there, any more than it does in Tel Aviv or Haifa.
The latest outrage occurred last Monday, when the Jerusalem planning and building committee had been slated to approve three construction plans for East Jerusalem: two in the Har Homa neighborhood and one in Armon Hanatziv. At the last minute, however, they were removed from the agenda on the transparently spurious pretext that they were not yet ready for discussion. Does anyone seriously believe that three not-yet-finalized plans made it onto the agenda by mistake? And that all just happened to involve politically sensitive East Jerusalem rather than the less sensitive western portion?
Granted, Monday’s meeting came just three days after the US vetoed an anti-Israel resolution in the UN Security Council. And since President Barack Obama’s antipathy toward Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is well-known, I can see why Netanyahu would not have wanted to seem to be spitting in Obama’s face by approving more Jewish construction in East Jerusalem so soon after the Security Council vote.
Thus had this been a one-time occurrence, it would have been understandable. But it wasn’t. Housing Minister Ariel Atias told the Knesset last May that on orders from the Prime Minister’s Office, no new housing had been marketed in Jerusalem since December 2009 - three months before the well-publicized spat with Washington over Israel’s approval of new construction in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting.
And there is plenty of evidence to support Atias’ statement. An Israel Lands Administration tender to build 150 apartments in East Jerusalem’s Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood, for instance, closed in February 2010, but three months later, the results still hadn’t been announced, so construction could not begin. The results of an ILA tender to build 300 apartments in East Jerusalem’s Neveh Yaakov neighborhood, which closed in May, were similarly not announced. An ILA tender for construction in Har Homa was announced last spring, but its finalization was then postponed to an unspecified “later date.”
The Ramat Shlomo construction approved last March was subsequently iced by Netanyahu. And when Jerusalem’s planning committee approved a plan to expand East Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood last November, Netanyahu immediately iced that as well.
Moreover, at the same time as Israel has frozen Jewish construction in East Jerusalem, it has virtually halted the demolition of illegal Palestinian construction there - again on orders from Washington via Netanyahu. Only 15 demolitions were carried out last year, compared to 87 in 2009, and there were no demolitions at all in the first half of that year.
This is not because the courts have ceased to issue demolition orders: Unlike the Prime Minister’s Office, the courts still consider Jerusalem to be sovereign Israeli territory where Israeli law must be obeyed. But Netanyahu, by deciding that Israel can’t even enforce its own laws in Jerusalem without Washington’s approval, has effectively conceded that Israel isn’t sovereign there. After all, Israel doesn’t seek Washington’s approval before demolishing illegally built houses in Tel Aviv or Haifa.
Needless to say, this is no way to run Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. If, as Netanyahu says, he believes Israel has a right to these areas and should retain them under any peace agreement, then he ought to be reinforcing this claim by building there, as every previous prime minister has done. By failing to do so, he sends the message that even Israel’s prime minister considers the country’s claim so dubious that he dares not act on it.
But what makes his behavior even more outrageous is that thanks to publication of the Palestine Papers, we now know the Palestinians have already agreed that every one of these neighborhoods, with the sole exception of Har Homa, will in any case remain Israeli under any peace deal. So Israel’s sovereignty in these areas isn’t even controversial - or at least, shouldn’t have been. Yet Netanyahu has turned it back into a question mark by refusing to uphold Israel’s rights in East Jerusalem, thereby sending the message that he, too, believes Israel’s presence there is illegitimate.
This is diplomatic malfeasance of the highest order. By caving into Washington’s dictates on this issue, Netanyahu has undermined one of Israel’s most vital interests - its claim to its capital city. And he has not even gotten anything in exchange: The entire world still blames Israel alone for the ongoing conflict.
It is also a gross betrayal of his voters, who overwhelmingly oppose dividing Jerusalem. And as such, it confronts his Likud party with a stark choice: either oust him as its leader in the next primary or forfeit its claim to represent Israel’s “national camp” - and hence, its only raison d’etre. To give up Jerusalem, Israelis don’t need Likud. The parties to its left can do that job quite nicely on their own.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.