Diplomacy: Settlements, world outrage and election

Construction announcements feed global condemnation that helps the Right. It’s a simple script currently being played to perfection by all actors

E1 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
E1 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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 years.
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 introduction.
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 capital.
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.
And Netanyahu’s 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.
That 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.
He is 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.”
In 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.
Netanyahu 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 capital.
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.
The official 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 provocation.
“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 Homa.
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 Europeans.
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 place.
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.
All 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 Netanyahu’s wager.