Crumbling assumptions underlie Gilo fracas

What caused this international uproar? Personal antipathy towards Netanyahu, baseless anti-Israel sentiment or the specter of anti-Semitism?

Gilo Construction 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Gilo Construction 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Israel’s announcement last week regarding the construction of 1,100 housing units in Gilo drew international disapprobation from allies, including the US and Germany. The Netanyahu government responded with umbrage: Gilo is neither a settlement nor an outpost, said government officials indignantly, but a neighborhood in our capital. Moreover, Gilo has been envisioned in every future peace agreement as part of the State of Israel, and the international community never took previous governments to task for similar action.
The government’s arguments are all correct. What, then, has caused this international uproar? Is it personal antipathy towards Netanyahu, baseless anti-Israel sentiment or, even worse, the specter of anti-Semitism?
The fact that the international community was prepared to accept Israeli construction in Gilo and elsewhere up until the current government took power is a reflection on two things: the success of painstaking efforts that were made over the years by successive Israeli governments on the one hand, and the way those past achievements are now are being jeopardized by the Netanyahu government on the other.
Israelis and Palestinians have over the past 18 years come to negotiations armed with competing and diametrically opposed views about their scope. Succinctly, the Israeli view is that the scope of negotiations is restricted to the territories that it captured in the Six Day War and does not extend to pre-1967 Israel. Israel argues that it has legitimate rights and interests in those territories, which must be taken into account in any final status arrangement agreement in the form of Israeli annexation of areas such as Gilo. Incidentally, this explains why the offers that were put on the table by Ehud Barak at Camp David and Taba in 2000 and 2001, followed by Ehud Olmert’s proposal in 2008, in which increasingly larger swaths of the territories were presented to the Palestinians, were broadly perceived in Israel as being generous offers that involved painful concessions by Israel.
Alternately, the Palestinians argue that all the land that was captured by Israel in 1967 is occupied territory and that all settlement on it is therefore illegal. Israel’s obligation to return those territories to Arab hands is held to be self-evident and non-negotiable. As such, all Israeli offers to return only part of those territories were dismissed out of hand, as were the explanations that those offers were either generous or constituted an Israeli concession. Furthermore, the PLO argues that there are many Palestinians with legitimate property rights inside sovereign Israel, particularly the refugees and their descendants. The Palestinians hold that one of the principal issues that must be negotiated is that lost property inside Israel.
In tandem with negotiations with one another, the Israelis and Palestinians have spent the past 18 years trying to persuade the international community to accept their respective positions on the scope and purpose of the negotiations. Israel has been far more successful thus far at this endeavor than the Palestinians.
The international community was gradually persuaded to adopt the point of view that Israel indeed has legitimate rights and interests in the territories that must be reflected in a final status arrangement. This manifested itself most saliently in president Clinton’s parameters in 2001, which envisioned a future division of sovereignty in Jerusalem on the basis of existing demographic lines rather than the former border; it was further entrenched by president Bush’s 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon that recognized the demographic changes in the territories that would have to be taken into account in a final status arrangement; this position was reinforced yet again by President Obama in his speech this past May that called for a land swap.
Why, then, was there an international outcry against the decision announced last week to build 1,100 new housing units in Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood that every peace proposal since president Clinton’s parameters indeed has envisioned as being part of Israel in any future final status arrangement?
In the past number of years the international community has repeatedly signaled to the Netanyahu government that its support for Israel’s future annexation of parts of the territories should not be construed as carte blanche for continued Israeli construction therein in the absence of peace. Rather, this international support is clearly contingent upon either the actual attainment of a final status arrangement or, at the very least, a clear designation by the Israeli government as to which parts of the West Bank and east Jerusalem it agrees will become part of the future State of Palestine.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has refused thus far to present a map that demarcates the boundaries of the future State of Palestine as he envisions it, most likely due to fear that such a course of action would alienate many members of his electoral base and undermine the stability of his coalition. The condemnation over Gilo was the international community’s way of signaling to the Netanyahu government once again that its provisional support was contingent upon the Israeli government making a firm commitment to withdraw from much of the rest of the territories.
Israeli governments, including the Netanyahu government, have made headway in recent years in persuading the international community to accept its view that Palestinian claims to property rights in Israel cannot be met by allowing for a massive “right of return” into Israel proper, which would destroy Israel’s Jewish character. Despite vehement Palestinian objections, the Spanish foreign minister last week spoke about Israel as the Jewish homeland, and called for the right of return to be restricted to the Palestinian state. The United States reportedly also lobbied to have Israel defined as a “Jewish and democratic state” in a Quartet statement.
The Netanyahu government is likely to discover that in order to prevail upon the international community on this issue in a lasting way as well, Israel is going to have to commit itself to making generous and painful territorial concessions to the Palestinians, even if the Palestinians continue to perceive them as being less than adequate.

The writer is managing editor of Israel News Today, a translated digest of Israel’s Hebrew media into English.