The American reaction to the announcement that Israel would continue to build in Jewish East Jerusalem puts several things in sharp focus. What does it tell us that Joe Biden ‘condemned’ it, Hillary Clinton found it ‘insulting’ and White House political advisor David Axelrod called it both an ‘affront’ and an ‘insult’?
Let’s look at both the substance and the tone of these remarks.
The substance: as many commentators have pointed out, Israel has been building in East Jerusalem since 1967, and negotiated with the Palestinian Authority for 15 years while building there. When Israel agreed to the Obama Administration’s demand for a settlement freeze in Judea and Samaria, it pointedly did not agree to include Jerusalem, which Israel has never considered a ‘settlement’. At that time, the US praised Israel for taking a positive step to resolve the conflict. Israel has indicated that it would cede some Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as part of a peace agreement, but has never accepted any prior limitation of its sovereignty over all of Jerusalem.
Israel has credibly maintained that there was a verbal commitment by the Bush Administration that construction in areas beyond the 1949 lines which were expected to become part of Israel in a final agreement was not a problem for the US. The Obama Administration disavowed this understanding, with the cagey Hilary Clinton saying that there was no “enforceable” agreement.
The Ramat Shlomo neighborhood has about 20,000 Jewish residents today; it is close to the northern part of West Jerusalem and further construction there does not change the status quo or create ‘facts on the ground’ that would threaten a future settlement in which Arab areas become part of an Arab state.
As I wrote on Friday, the Palestinians are looking for excuses to not negotiate, because serious negotiations would expose the fact that it is their hardline positions — particularly on ‘refugees’ — that have prevented an agreement, not Israel.
Anger has been directed at Israel because it took a step that contradicted Palestinian demands that it never accepted as reasonable, and which the US suddenly appears to approve. Tomorrow Mahmoud Abbas might say that construction must stop in “Tel Arabiyya” (i.e., Tel Aviv, a city founded by Jews on sand dunes in 1909). Would that, too, need to be taken seriously?
The tone: it seems to that who has been ‘insulted’, ‘slapped down’, ‘affronted’, etc. was not the US Vice President, but rather Israel. Israel is a sovereign state, not an American colony. Can you imagine language like this being applied to another US ally, like the UK or Canada, for example? Can you imagine the US officially speaking like this to Saudi Arabia? I can’t.
Much as I admire PM Netanyahu, I felt that his apologetic response, to say that he was unaware of the decision (which I’m sure is true) and to appoint a committee to prevent such a thing from happening again, was inappropriate. By doing this, no matter how carefully his statement is worded, he is implying that the US is right to be upset that Israel exercised sovereignty in Jerusalem. This is absolutely the wrong message to send.
Here is how Mr. Netanyahu should have responded to Mr. Biden and Ms. Clinton (court Jew Axelrod can be ignored):
With all due respect, in keeping with accepted diplomatic principles, stay out of Israel’s internal affairs.
Update [1014 PST]: Here’s an great explanation of why the media are jumping on this story from the opposite angle.