Sidestepping Gilo

Delaying the Gilo housing project would have shifted international pressure and attention from Jerusalem to Ramallah.

Gilo Construction 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Gilo Construction 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Washington’s response to plans to advance the building of 1,100 housing units in the Jewish east Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo was relatively subdued. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Gilo project “counterproductive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties.”
Statements coming from Berlin were worded more sternly.
Following a phone call between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Chancellor Angela Merkel about the Gilo project, the German Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that Merkel told Netanyahu that she “lacked any comprehension for the approval of new construction plans for Gilo near Jerusalem just days after the Quartet declaration [calling for a new peace plan] had been passed.”
No matter the precise wording of the responses, it is abundantly clear that America, Israel’s most important international ally, and Germany, a country that came out early and strongly against Palestinian efforts to receive UN recognition for a Palestinian state along the 1949 armistice lines – which include Gilo on the Palestinian side – were both upset by the timing of the Gilo project announcement.
It is equally clear that unlike the surprise surrounding the March 2010 Ramat Shlomo debacle that coincided with Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel to jump-start direct talks, Netanyahu and the Americans were both forewarned that Interior Ministry’s District Planning Committee would be approving the Gilo project. And Netanyahu was also aware that it would arouse international rancor.
In a Rosh Hashana-eve interview with The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon, the prime minister was specifically asked about the claim that it was bad timing to announce Gilo now. Netanyahu rejected this.
“We build in Jewish neighborhoods, the Arabs build in Arab neighborhoods,” he replied. “That is the way the life of this city goes on and develops for its Jewish and non- Jewish residents alike.”
Still, perhaps Netanyahu should have played his hand differently.
Of course Israel has every right to build in Gilo. But perhaps he should have quietly postponed approval of the Gilo project.
After the Ramat Shlomo crisis, Netanyahu put in place oversight procedures allowing him to do precisely this. If he had postponed Gilo, claiming technical difficulties or some other non-political explanation, the Palestinians would have had no excuse for avoiding direct talks as recommended by the Quartet.
Delaying Gilo would have also made it easier for the US and Germany and other European countries to back Israel’s demand to resume talks without any preconditions and would have sent out a message that we are appreciative for their support in the UN against the Palestinian bid for statehood.
And even if Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who has authority over construction planning, had publicly objected, claiming that Netanyahu was bowing to international pressure, this would have been good for Netanyahu diplomatically.
He would have come out looking like a prime minister pursuing peace despite opposition from inside his own government coalition.
True, there is no good time to build in Gilo.
International opinion is opposed to any Jewish construction beyond the Green Line. No distinctions are made between outlying settlements in Judea and Samaria and Gilo, a neighborhood 10 minutes away from downtown Jerusalem that will remain part of Israel in a final-status agreement according to every peace plan put forward in the past 18 years, including the 2000 Clinton parameters and the Geneva Initiative.
Even the Palestinians have privately accepted the idea that Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem will remain part of Israel, according to about 1,600 documents revealing the content of negotiations that went on in 2008 between high-ranking Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials leaked to Al Jazeera in January, known as “PaliLeaks.”
Meanwhile, Israel faces a major housing shortage. Even a short delay in construction further widens the gap between inadequate supply and skyrocketing demand.
Nevertheless, from a tactical perspective, it would have been wiser to temporarily delay the Gilo project.
Doing so would have shifted international pressure and attention from Jerusalem to Ramallah and demonstrated that Palestinian intransigence – not the apartment buildings in Gilo – is the real obstacle to peace.