Analysis: Frozen by his own fiasco

The Ramat Shlomo dispute has forced the de facto housing freeze in east J’lem the PM had hitherto resisted.

ramat shlomo construction east jerusalem 311 (photo credit: AP)
ramat shlomo construction east jerusalem 311
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a statement Thursday morning saying he had summoned Interior Minister Eli Yishai to his office a day earlier and “expressed his displeasure” at the timing of an Interior Ministry committee’s announcement regarding the plans to build 1,600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo.
“Displeasure?” Talk about diplomatic understatement. Netanyahu had to be infuriated.
The prime minister, who for a year stood his ground as the entire world – beginning with US President Barack Obama – called on him to stop building anywhere beyond the Green Line, including in Jerusalem neighborhoods like Ramat Eshkol and Ramot, had to be fuming at Yishai for not blocking a bureaucratic procedure that has tactically set Israel way back in its diplomatic jockeying with the Palestinians.
Just when the world had begun to begrudgingly accept that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians needed to begin even without a housing-start moratorium in east Jerusalem, this announcement – amplified a million times by Vice President Joe Biden’s visit – turned everything on its head.
All of a sudden the issue was not Elon Moreh and Ofra, but Ramat Shlomo and Ramat Eshkol. Up until Tuesday, Netanyahu had managed to keep Jerusalem construction – at least construction in the Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem – off the table. Now it was plop in the middle, which is exactly what the Palestinians want.
All of a sudden the headlines in two major Israeli dailies, Haaretz and Yediot Aharonot, were about plans to build thousands more units in the eastern part of the city – as if there were something nefarious about that, as if Ramat Eshkol, which features on the Yediot map, were Yitzhar.
The Arab League, which on Sunday gave a green light for the Palestinians to enter into talks with Israel even though its members knew that Israel was continuing to build in east Jerusalem, said on Wednesday that it now needed to reevaluate matters.
Why? What happened?
What happened was that the Arab leaders saw Biden’s furious condemnation of the decision and figured, “Wait a minute. This US anger will surely force Netanyahu to buckle. Why go into talks when there is such international pressure on Israel. Let’s hold up a bit, let the pressure seep in, force Israel to cave in, and then return to talks.”
In January, in an interview with PBS talk show host Charlie Rose, US Middle East envoy George Mitchell was asked about the contentious Jerusalem issue, and said it had to be understood that Israel annexed Jerusalem in 1980.
“Annexed is a very important word,” he said. “The Israelis are not going to stop settlements in or construction in east Jerusalem. They don’t regard that as a settlement because they think it’s part of Israel.”
That was the US position.
Then along comes the Ramat Shlomo announcement, a day before Biden is to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, and he is forced to issue a strong condemnation, or risk being seen as complicit in the decision.
Once that statement was released, the flood gates opened, the condemnations from around the world came piling in, building in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem became an issue, and the Palestinians and Arabs figured they would let the pressure do its work and reevaluate talks.
Even though Netanyahu has made clear a couple of times over the last few days that Israel would not stop building in east Jerusalem, following this latest episode, it is very difficult to imagine that in the next few months there will be any announcements of new projects there.
Which means that in practice, though not in declaration, there will likely be a de facto housing-start moratorium in east Jerusalem – which is precisely what the PA has been calling for all along.
There are those who will say that such a moratorium is needed. But if you are going to declare that type of moratorium, declare it, and get credit for it. Had the prime minister said he was going to stop building in east Jerusalem to improve the atmosphere for talks, he would have been hailed in Washington as taking bold, brave steps for peace.
Now, the end result on the ground is likely to be a moratorium, butNetanyahu will not get credit for it, and it will appear as if he iscaving in to international pressure. That itself is dangerous, becauseif the Palestinians sense the US can deliver Israel, they will have noincentive to do anything: They can just sit back and wait for that tohappen.
There is a wide consensus that Tuesday’s Interior Ministry announcementon Ramat Shlomo was a colossal mistake because it embarrassed Biden.But it was more than that: It was a huge tactical setback forNetanyahu.