The Capital of War

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March 19, 2010

A few months ago, I was wandering around East Jerusalem, having not been there for about eight months prior. The changes I saw were profound and frightening.

The twin phenomena of Jewish settlements expanding in East Jerusalem and Jewish families moving into Palestinian neighborhoods had grown enormously. Settler homes, often marked with Israeli flags but also otherwise well-known to the people in the area, were dotted throughout a number of Arab areas, especially near the Old City. Small Jewish enclaves, often built by private organizations such as ElAd or Ateret Cohanim, stand out with their smooth roads and superior services, indicating the full cooperation of the government.

It was not news that Israel was working to make it impossible to divide the city along the lines most draft peace agreements want: that which is Jewish remains Israeli, while that which is Arab will be Palestinian. But seeing how far it progressed made it very clear that either an explosion was imminent or Israel was close to a fait accompli that would seriously jeopardize the last hopes for a two-state solution.

When I returned to Washington, I told everyone I could that Jerusalem had to be addressed; that there was no way we could continue trying to take on “easier” issues. I was not the only one making this case, but given the difficulties the Obama Administration was and is having just trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians to talk, no one felt there was anything to be gained by going near the issue of Jerusalem.

Well, the city’s planning council conveniently solved that problem for us. Now, Jerusalem is at the forefront, but it need not remain there, and in fact it almost certainly won’t. But it will be important that the status quo change.


Israel completed the process of annexing East Jerusalem in 1980. Thirty years later, no country, including the United States, has recognized the validity of that move. But under Israeli law, Jerusalem has been the “united capital” of Israel certainly since then and in practice since 1967.

Having gone on for such an extended period, this situation has produced a dual view of Jerusalem. For Israelis, it not only seems like Jerusalem has always been theirs in whole, but that the rest of the world has gotten used to that. Sure, it’s a subject for negotiation, but anything Israel might grant the Palestinians in Jerusalem is a concession and an example of Israel giving up what is hers.

The rest of the world sees Jerusalem purely as a matter of negotiation. Most of the West sees it as a different issue than the West Bank, and most see the Israeli claim to Jerusalem (both for reasons of history and because when last the eastern part of the city was under Arab control, Jews could not get to our holiest sites) as being stronger than to the rest of the West Bank, but they see an equally strong Palestinian claim which must be settled through a diplomatic process.

The Israeli view has led to steady building over the years, and a combination of various political factors, most notably the fear that the US would take steps toward a permanent agreement in the near term, have accelerated the building in recent years.

The international community and the US in particular has never approved of Jewish expansion into East Jerusalem, but the heat around the issue has led them to generally look the other way unless forced to deal with it. Now, they have been forced to.

Can Israel Freeze Building in Jerusalem?

A Ha’aretz poll, in the wake of the current controversy showed that, by more than two to one, Israelis do not believe that Barack Obama is hostile toward Israel. But they also still endorse the job Benjamin Netanyahu is doing as Prime Minister.

A more important aspect is what Israelis said about continuing construction in Jerusalem. We repeatedly hear that there is an “Israeli consensus” that building in Jerusalem must not stop. The poll showed 48% in favor of continued building and 41% opposed.

There is a very clear implication in that result: if an Israeli Prime Minister were to make the case that construction in East Jerusalem was necessary for working toward peace and for Israel’s standing in the international community, chances are a big swing would occur and clear support for such a cessation would emerge.

Israelis are a pragmatic people, and despite also being ideologically partisan, the typical Israeli has a far more nuanced understanding of international politics than the typical American. If it becomes clear to them that a temporary halt in Jerusalem construction is a diplomatic necessity, there would be support for it.

That is very different from saying that such a majority of Israelis would agree to give up a significant part of Jerusalem. But that is not the question at hand. The question these Israelis are confronting is whether or not to simply stop building in Jerusalem for a while in order to get peace negotiations back on track. Israelis understand well that, even if they don’t believe the negotiations will end with an agreement, a continued peace process does them a lot of good in terms of international diplomacy and business.

Israelis understand that what is going on in Jerusalem is a clear attempt to change the facts on the ground. That is not necessarily out of bounds for them, and if it can be done without serious consequences, most will support it or at least not object. I’d venture a guess that if that same poll question had been asked before Joe Biden’s recent visit, a much larger majority would have supported continued building.

So, a determined Prime Minister can make this case and get public support. The problem with Benjamin Netanyahu is that if he does, he will lose his coalition. Kadima might be willing to come in and save the government if it meant improving relations with the United States, but that would be a coalition that would put Bibi on a very different political course, one he may not wish to pursue.

American Jews and the Current Controversy

Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League has unfortunately stepped into the fray, not discussing Jerusalem but having then unimaginable hubris to challenge General David Petraeus on his statement (which is so obviously true and correct as to be axiomatic) that the Israel-Palestine conflict complicates American efforts in other parts of the world.

This is another part of the same issue. The ADL, like AIPAC before it, is trying to bring the Obama Administration back to the position of previous administrations, which showed enormous favoritism toward Israel, at the expense of American, Israeli and Palestinian interests and those of peace as well.

The idea that the US should not pursue its interests in the region, or the notion that Israeli interests and American ones are identical is patently false. Indeed, Foxman’s outrage seems at odds with statements made by none other than Netanyahu himself, among many others.

Any confrontation between Israel and the US is naturally vexing to American Jews. And when it involves Jerusalem, it is doubly so.

In the days of Camp David, the PLO team repeatedly told Bill Clinton that when it came to Jerusalem they were accountable to the whole Muslim world. This certainly proved frustrating for Clinton, and was also part of Arafat’s dodging strategy to avoid concessions he was not prepared to make.

But it was also true, and it’s true for Israel as well that when it comes to Jerusalem, it is accountable to the whole Jewish world. One can recall the reaction, for one example, of the Orthodox Union when Ehud Olmert suggested that Jerusalem might just need to be shared.

This might explain why both AIPAC and the ADL (which has no business being involved in this issue at all, as it is very far from their organizational expertise or an issue Abe Foxman understands at all. At least this is AIPAC’s job) have overreached and exposed themselves as clearly favoring Israeli interests over American ones. Fortunately, that view is held by only a tiny minority of American Jews, as is reflected by the much more cautious approach which has been taken by almost all other Jewish organizations.

A New Nod and Wink

Now that the Obama Administration has engaged in this question, how does it move forward? Keeping up a fight with Israel on this is not a wise course. The political waves it would cause domestically would only grow, and it moves the parties no closer to substantive talks.

Indeed, veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller believes the Obama Administration is now actively trying to wind this confrontation down. But where will it land? Politically, it is unrealistic to expect Netanyahu to announce a building freeze in East Jerusalem in the near future. But that’s not the only option.

If Bibi’s package of various “confidence building steps” seems reasonable to Obama, he should accept it, take the suspension of the Ramat Shlomo project and make one more thing clear to Netanyahu: I won’t force you to announce a suspension of construction. But in return, I expect you to limit it, to drag out the processes so that groundbreaking is delayed for months or years, and I expect you to do everything in East Jerusalem quietly.

Until now, the US has nodded and winked at Israeli construction in East Jerusalem. Now that nod and wink must be taken by Bibi. Let him make his statements and let him avoid any sort of official freeze. But if in practice, Jerusalem building is significantly slowed, enough so that at least for the next 18-24 months the changes on the ground don’t pre-determine the final status of the city, which is enough for the US.

It’s far from ideal. But blaming Israel doesn’t fly on this one. The situation has gotten to this point because the Clinton and Bush Administrations allowed it to. Obama is trying to clean it up, but it’s a situation decades in the making. It can’t be fixed overnight and a “one fell swoop” approach from Obama would almost certainly backfire. We need to understand that we, the US, are the greatest culprit here.

We need to fix it, and we need to act responsibly and wisely to do so. That’s a new approach for us. Let’s see if Obama, Clinton and Mitchell can make it work.

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