Undermining Israel’s rights to its capital

That’s what Netanyahu did by freezing building plans until he could "offset" them by freeing killers.

Jerusalem Western Wall, Dome of the Rock 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jerusalem Western Wall, Dome of the Rock 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Hard as it is to believe, releasing 26 vicious murderers for the dubious privilege of resuming “peace” talks may not have been the worst outrage our government perpetrated last week. Equally appalling was the sudden announcement, after months of an undeclared freeze on planning and construction in Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs, of plans for almost 2,100 new homes in these areas. In other words, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the world he considers Israeli construction in its capital city so illegitimate that he dare not do it unless accompanied by an egregious concession like freeing Palestinian murderers.
Last Sunday, the Housing Ministry announced plans to issue tenders for 793 homes in Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem and 394 in the settlement blocs. Last Monday, the Interior Ministry gave final approval to plans for 900 homes in East Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood. And last Tuesday, 26 killers went home to heroes’ welcomes in the Palestinian Authority. The connection would be glaringly obvious even to someone who didn’t know that construction in Jerusalem had hitherto been frozen since the start of the year, as Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Avigdor Lieberman publicly admitted in June. The Gilo plan, for instance, had been ready since December, but the Interior Ministry postponed approving it under pressure from Netanyahu’s office.
Worse, even after this egregious prisoner release, it’s far from clear that any of these units will ever be built. Israel’s cumbersome planning process involves numerous steps before construction can start, and by Netanyahu’s orders, every project in Jerusalem or the settlements requires his approval at every step. But he has a long history of loudly announcing building plans and then quietly freezing them at the next stage, as I noted over two years ago: Plans to issue tenders are announced, but the tenders never materialize. Tenders are issued, but the winners aren’t announced. And so forth.
The reason Netanyahu has effectively frozen construction in Jerusalem for years is his fear of the anti-Israel delegitimization campaign. As American columnist Jeffrey Goldberg reported last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry thinks this campaign is the one thing Netanyahu fears as much as Iran’s nuclear program (and he deftly exploited this fear to extract concessions like the prisoners' release).
Netanyahu’s concern about delegitimization is obviously justified. But if the goal is to fight delegitimization, the worst thing any Israeli premier could do is act as if he agreed that Israeli construction in Jerusalem – the city to which Jews prayed to return throughout 2,000 years of exile – is illegitimate.
After all, no country hesitates to build on its legitimate sovereign territory, just as Israel doesn’t hesitate to build in Tel Aviv of Haifa. Even Netanyahu’s predecessors, who offered large chunks of east Jerusalem to the Palestinians, continued building in the parts they intended to keep. Thus by fearing to build in Jerusalem, Netanyahu is effectively broadcasting doubts about Israel’s right to the city.
But if Israel has no right to Jerusalem, then it’s nothing but a thief occupying someone else’s land. And a thief who refuses to disgorge his ill-gotten gains can never hope to placate the world’s opprobrium by gestures like freezing construction or freeing murderers: Nothing less than vacating east Jerusalem and evicting its 200,000 Jewish residents will do.
Netanyahu’s behavior also undermines Israel’s claim to Jerusalem on a purely practical level. As Nadav Shragai reported in Israel Hayom last week, Jerusalem needs about 4,500 new homes a year to keep pace with demand. But for the last several years, under Netanyahu, only about 1,000 to 1,500 a year have been built. This housing shortage is a major driver of the ongoing exodus of Jews from Jerusalem: Every year, according to Shragai, some 18,000 Jews leave the city, causing its Jewish majority to shrink – from about 74% in 1967 to 64% in 2010, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. This obviously undermines Israel’s ability to retain Jerusalem as its united capital.
Moreover, Netanyahu hasn’t even gotten anything in exchange for undermining Israel’s rights. Had he publicly declared that despite Israel’s legal, moral and historical rights to Jerusalem, he was freezing construction to facilitate peace talks, he would at least have earned Israel a few temporary international plaudits. Not that I’m recommending such a move. Allowing the Palestinians to veto Israeli construction in Jerusalem would effectively acknowledge their claim to the city as legitimate and thus undermine Israel’s own claim; it would lead the world to expect this as a permanent concession, and the plaudits would soon evaporate, just as those earned by previous Israeli concessions did. But undermining Israel’s claim to its capital while also being lambasted worldwide for “sabotaging the talks” by making ostentatious (and possibly empty) building announcements is hardly an improvement. 
Then, as if all this weren’t enough, Netanyahu’s senior coalition partner made things even worse: In a comment gleefully reported worldwide, Finance Minister Yair Lapid termed the building announcements a “double mistake,” charging that not only did they undermine the peace process, but “Solutions for the problem of housing should be founded in the areas of need.” In other words, he accused Netanyahu of announcing housing plans in areas where there’s not even any demand for it, thereby implying that these announcements were pure provocations rather than responses to the country’s real needs.
As noted above, that’s patently false; there’s a crying demand for housing in Jerusalem, and the same goes for the settlement blocs. But since most people overseas can’t imagine a finance minister being so ignorant of his country’s basic economic realities, they’ll naturally assume that Israelis really don’t want to live in these areas, and hence that Israel is simply playing dog in the manger, denying the Palestinians land it doesn’t even want itself.     
For years, I’ve supported Netanyahu as the least bad of the available alternatives. But the past week has made it abundantly clear that this is no longer true. To free Palestinian murderers and delegitimize Israel’s claim to its capital city, Israel doesn’t need a Likud prime minister. For that, we could just as well elect Mahmoud Abbas.