Apologists for the Obama administration have been arguing that there is no real difference between his stand opposing Jewish settlements and that of George W. Bush. There was some truth to this when it came to settlements in the West Bank, though this assertion ignores the fact that the Bush administration publicly acknowledged that some of the larger settlement blocs would be retained by Israel in any peace agreement and that building within them was not really an issue. But even the most ardent fans of Obama must understand that there is a major difference between the two presidents when it comes to Jerusalem. Granted, the United States has never formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or formally accepted the unification of the city that was made possible by the Six-Day War. As much as the U.S. routinely protested settlement-building in the West Bank, it never made a stink about building homes in Jerusalem. And that’s where Obama parts company with his predecessors.
Though the administration has backed off a bit on its determination to pressure Israel into a total settlement freeze — a policy that only incited Palestinians to be even more intransigent than before — Obama made a point of personally opposing the construction of 900 new apartment units in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Obama condemned the new housing in an interview with Fox News during which he stated that the apartments could embitter Palestinians in a way that was “very dangerous.”
The president’s decision to speak as if this part of Jerusalem was a “settlement” where Jews had no right to live and build is not just a provocative escalation of the administration’s hostile attitude toward Israel. It also gives the Palestinian terrorists who made the apartment complexes in this neighborhood their personal shooting gallery throughout the second intifada an unexpected boost. Palestinian Authority–backed snipers based in the neighboring Arab village of Beit Jala regularly shot into Gilo during that conflict. Gilo also became more than just a middle-class Jerusalem neighborhood. It assumed the role of a symbol of Israeli tenacity and courage, and the area became a regular stop for visitors to the city. At the time, the United States condemned the attacks on Gilo. The presence of Jewish homes there was not an issue. Even media outlets that were far from supportive of Israel, such as the New York Times, were wont to describe it as a Jerusalem neighborhood, as this report from 2001 by Clyde Haberman during the height of the fighting illustrates. The word settlement is never used once in the article. Today, however, the Times used that word to describe Gilo in the headline of the story about Obama’s broadside.
Though I doubt the White House even thought of it in this context, Obama’s decision to treat as illegitimate Gilo’s existence as a Jewish community is, in a very real sense, a moral victory for those al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade killers whose goal was to make the neighborhood a place where Jews could no longer live. So just as visitors who wanted to bear witness to the determination of Israelis to not yield to terror needed to go to Gilo in 2001, anyone wishing to see just how far the United States has drifted from a position of support for the Jewish state must today go to the same place.