Analysis: Israel vs the world: Drawing battle lines over Jerusalem

There's a dissonance between Israeli slogans on Jerusalem and the country's negotiating position.

sheikh jarrah house 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
sheikh jarrah house 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The phone call Ambassador to the US Michael Oren received from the State Department on Monday protesting the eviction of two Palestinian families from a Jewish-owned building in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood - as well as the condemnations of the move by Britain, Egypt, the UN and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - are the birth pangs of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's new policy on Jerusalem. For the past 40 years, scores of Israeli politicians have been talking about Israel's 3,000-year-old link to Jerusalem and how the city must remain Israel's undivided capital forever. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert spoke that way for years, especially when he was mayor of the city. But then he became prime minister, changed his tone and - by his own in admission - was willing to compromise on Jerusalem. In a May interview with Newsweek, Olmert said he agreed that the "holy basin" in Jerusalem would not be under Israel's sovereignty, but rather administered by a consortium of Saudis, Jordanians, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans. In other words, there has long been a dissonance between Israeli slogans on Jerusalem and the country's negotiating position regarding the city. Talk to foreign diplomats and they will tell you, with absolute sincerity, that the Arabs will never, ever compromise on Jerusalem, not in a million years. The Jews, they believe, will compromise. And their expectations are not unfounded: a quick glance at diplomacy over the last 10 years shows that premise to be true. Ehud Barak was willing to make Israeli concessions to the Palestinians regarding Jerusalem at Camp David and Taba, and Olmert was willing to do the same during his conversations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu, who when he was prime minister the first time around dug the Temple Mount tunnels that sparked riots, and also bucked the condemnation of the entire world in building Har Homa, seems to be made of different stuff on Jerusalem. When he says the city will be the undivided capital of Israel, he - apparently - means it. What is occurring now - both the US protest over the decision to build 20 apartment units for Jews at the site of the old Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah, and the protest over the current evictions - is that both Israel and the world are laying down their markers. The world is saying "hands off east Jerusalem," and Netanyahu is replying, "no, it's ours." And those diametrically opposed positions are bound to lead to friction. It is also important to keep in mind three other elements when looking at the current tension with Washington over Jerusalem. The first is that the government did not initiate the eviction of the families in Sheikh Jarrah. One cannot accuse the government of picking a fight with the US over this issue now, at a very sensitive time in the diplomatic process. Rather, the police were implementing a decision on ownership of the house handed down by the Supreme Court. Another thing to remember is that no prime minister of Israel has ever agreed to curtail building in east Jerusalem. Even Olmert, who was willing to compromise a great deal on Jerusalem, continued to approve housing in the eastern part of the city, drawing fire as a result from then-US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Olmert kept building in east Jerusalem, while at the same time indicating willingness to make concessions on it in a final-status deal. Netanyahu, like Olmert, continues to build, but has not indicated that he is willing to compromise on the final status of the city. And, finally, the noise over Jerusalem now must be seen within the context of the negotiations over a possible settlement moratorium. The Israeli government has made clear that any possible limitations on settlement construction will be just that - limitations on settlements beyond the Green Line, but not in the capital. The protests and howls coming from the world and Washington over everything Israel does in east Jerusalem is a clear sign that they do not accept that position.