Yossi Klein Halevi
The Australian, March 20, 2010
Suddenly my city feels like a war zone again. Since the bomb attacks ended in 2005, life in Jerusalem has been relatively calm. The worst disruption has been the traffic jams from construction of a light rail, just like in a normal city.
But now there are groups of helmeted border police near the gates of the Old City, smoke from burning tyres in the Arab area outside my porch, young men marching with green Islamic flags toward my neighbourhood, and ambulances parked ready for the city’s ultimate nightmare.
The return of menace to Jerusalem is not because an Israeli bureaucrat announced stage four of a seven-stage process in the construction of 1600 extra apartments in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighbourhood in northeast Jerusalem. Such announcements and building of Jewish projects have become so routine over the years that Palestinians have scarcely responded, let alone violently.
In negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, the permanence of Ramat Shlomo and other Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, has been a given. Ramat Shlomo, between the Jewish neighbourhoods of French Hill and Ramot, will remain within the boundaries of Israeli Jerusalem, according to every peace plan. Unlike the small Jewish enclaves inserted into Arab neighbourhoods, on which Israelis are strongly divided, building more housing in Jewish areas of East Jerusalem defines the national consensus.
So why the outbreak of violence now? Why Hamas’s Day of Rage over Jerusalem, and the Palestinian Authority’s call to gather on the Temple Mount to save the Dome of the Rock from non-existent plans to build the Third Temple? Why the outrage over rebuilding a synagogue, which was destroyed by the Jordanians in the 1948 war, in the Old City’s Jewish quarter, when dozens of synagogues and yeshivas were built without incident?
The answer lies not in Jerusalem but in Washington. By placing the issue of building more Jewish housing in East Jerusalem at the centre of the peace process, US President Barack Obama has inadvertently challenged the Palestinians to do no less.
Astonishingly, Obama is repeating the key tactical mistake of his failed efforts to restart the Middle East peace talks over the past year. Although Obama’s insistence on a freeze on Jewish settlements to help restart negotiations was legitimate, he went a step too far by including building in East Jerusalem. Every Israeli government over the past four decades has built in the Jewish neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem, and no Israeli government, let alone one headed by the Likud party, could possibly agree to a freeze.
Obama made the resumption of negotiations hostage to a demand that could not be met. As a result, Palestinian leaders were forced to adjust their demands. Obama is responsible for one of the most absurd turns in the history of the Middle East peace negotiations. Although Palestinian leaders negotiated with Israeli governments that built Jewish settlements in the West Bank, they now refuse to sit down with the first Israeli government to agree to a suspension of building. Obama’s demand for a freeze on Israeli building in Jerusalem led to a freeze in negotiations.
Finally, after intense efforts, the Obama administration produced the pathetic achievement of “proximity talks”, setting Palestinian-Israeli negotiations back a generation to the time when Palestinian leaders refused to sit with the Israelis.
That Obama could be guilty of such amateurishness was perhaps forgivable because he was an amateur. But he has now taken his failed policy and intensified it. By demanding that Israel stop building more Jewish housing in Ramat Shlomo and elsewhere in East Jerusalem – and placing that demand at the centre of US-Israeli relations – he is ensured the Palestinians won’t show up, even to proximity talks. This is no longer amateurishness; it is pique disguised as policy.
When the announcement about building in Ramat Shlomo was made, Israelis shared US Vice-President Joe Biden’s humiliation and were outraged at their government’s incompetence. The widespread sense here was that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deserved the US condemnation, not because of what he did, but because of what he didn’t do – he failed to convey the need for caution during Biden’s visit, symptomatic of his chaotic style of governing generally.
But not even the Israeli opposition accused Netanyahu of deliberate provocation. These are not the days of Yitzhak Shamir, the former Israeli prime minister who used to greet a visit from US secretary of state James Baker with an announcement of the creation of another Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
Netanyahu has placed the need for strategic co-operation with the US on the Iranian threat ahead of the right-wing political agenda. That’s why he included the Labour Party in his coalition, and why he accepted a two-state solution – a historic announcement that set Likud, however reluctantly, within the mainstream consensus supporting Palestinian statehood. The last thing Netanyahu wanted was to embarrass Biden during his goodwill visit and trigger a clash with Obama over building in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish area.
Nor is it likely there was a deliberate provocation by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which runs the Israeli interior ministry that oversees building. Shas, which supports peace talks and territorial compromise, is not a nationalist party. Its interest is providing housing for its supporters, like the future residents of Ramat Shlomo, and provoking international incidents is not its style.
Finally, the ordinariness of the building procedure – the fact construction in Jewish East Jerusalem is considered routine by Israelis – is the best proof there was no intentional ambush of Biden. Apparently no one in the interior ministry could imagine a long-term plan over Ramat Shlomo would sabotage a US state visit.
In turning an incident into a crisis, Obama has convinced many Israelis he was merely seeking a pretext to pick a fight with Israel. Netanyahu was inadvertently shabby, Obama deliberately so. According to a banner headline in the newspaper Maariv, senior Likud officials believe Obama’s goal is to topple the Netanyahu government by encouraging those in the Labor Party who want to quit the coalition.
The popular assumption is that Obama is seeking to prove his resolve as a leader by getting tough with Israel. Given his ineffectiveness against Iran and his tendency to break his own deadlines for sanctions, the Israeli public is not likely to be impressed.
Israelis’ initial anger at Netanyahu has turned to anger against Obama. According to an Israel Radio poll, 62 per cent of Israelis blame the Obama administration for the crisis, while 20 per cent blame Netanyahu. Another 17 per cent blame Shas leader Eli Yishai.
In the past year, the US has not once publicly condemned the Palestinians for lack of good faith – even though the Palestinian Authority media has been waging a months-long campaign denying the Jews’ historic roots in Jerusalem.
Just after Biden left Ramallah, Palestinian officials held a ceremony naming a square in the city after a terrorist responsible for the massacre of 38 Israeli civilians. To its credit, the Obama administration did condemn the Palestinian Authority yesterday for inciting violence in Jerusalem.
Obama’s one-sided public pressure against Israel could intensify the atmosphere of open season against Israel internationally. The European Union has reaffirmed it is linking improved economic relations with Israel to the resumption of the peace process – as if it is Israel, rather than the Palestinians, that is refusing to come to the negotiating table.
If the Obama administration’s main tactical error in the Middle East negotiations was emphasising Israeli building in Jerusalem, its main strategic error was assuming a two-state solution was within easy reach. Shortly after Obama took office, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was quoted in the Israeli press insisting a Palestinian state would be created within Obama’s first term.
Instead, a year later, we are in the era of suspended proximity talks. Now the US is demanding that Israel negotiate over final status issues in the proximity talks, as a way of convincing the Palestinians to agree to those talks – as if Israel would agree to discuss the future of Jerusalem when Palestinian leaders refuse to even sit with them.
To insist on the imminent possibility of a two-state solution requires amnesia. Biden’s plea for Israel to consider a withdrawal to the pre-war 1967 borders in exchange for peace with the Palestinians ignores the fact that Israel made that offer twice in the past decade: first when prime minister Ehud Barak accepted the Clinton proposals of December 2000, and then more recently when prime minister Ehud Olmert renewed the offer to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert says Abbas never replied.
The reason for Palestinian rejection of a two-state solution is because a deal would require the Palestinians to confine the return of the descendants of the 1948 refugees to Palestine rather than Israel. That would prevent a two-state solution from devolving into a bi-national, one-state solution. Israel’s insistence on survival remains the obstacle to peace.
To achieve eventual peace, the international community needs to pressure Palestinian leaders to forgo their claim to Haifa and Jaffa and confine their people’s right of return to a future Palestinian state, just as the Jews will need to forgo their claim to Hebron and Bethlehem and confine their people’s right of return to the state of Israel.
That is the only possible deal: conceding my right of return to Greater Israel in exchange for your right of return to Greater Palestine. A majority of Israelis – along with the political system – has accepted that principle. On the Palestinian side, the political system has rejected it.
In the absence of Palestinian willingness to compromise on the right of return, negotiations should not focus on a two-state solution but on more limited goals.
There have been positive signs of change on the Palestinian side in the past few years. The rise of Hamas has created panic in Fatah, and the result is, for the first time, genuine security co-operation with Israel. And the emergence of Salam Fayyad as Palestinian Prime Minister marks a shift from ideological to pragmatic leadership, although Fayyad still lacks a power base. Finally, the West Bank economy is growing, thanks in part to Israel’s removal of dozens of roadblocks. The goal of negotiations at this point in the conflict should be to encourage those trends.
By focusing on Israeli building in Jerusalem, Obama has undermined that possibility too. To the fictitious notion of a peace process, Obama has now added the fiction of an intransigent Israel blocking the peace process.
The Obama administration, according to a report in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth , is making an even more insidious accusation against Israel. During his visit, said Yedioth Ahronoth , Biden told Israeli leaders their policies are endangering American lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. The report has been denied in the White House. Whether or not the remark was made, what is clear in Jerusalem today is that Obama’s recklessness is endangering Israeli and Palestinian lives.
As I listen to police sirens outside my window, Obama’s political intifada against Netanyahu seems to be turning into a third intifada over Jerusalem.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalem Centre in Jerusalem, and a contributing editor of The New Republic
Source: The Australian