The New York Times has taken the plunge. In a report today about the Israeli government’s decision to build 1,600 housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood — which, like most of Jerusalem, lies across the “Green Line” separating pre- and post-1967 territory, the NYT headline proudly refers to the “new settlements” that are, according to another NYT headline about the responses to the declaration, “clouding” the visit of Vice President Biden to the Middle East, who had arrived to announce the renewal of indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians. An earlier version of the piece, which has since been edited, described Jerusalem as home to “thousands of settlers.” This whole terminology is fairly new, but we can hardly blame the Times. It is, after all, the official position of the U.S. government.
Netanyahu is denying that he knew of the decision, and the NYT piece takes him at his word. Many commentators in Israel are not so quick to believe it, seeing in his denial a classic Bibi move to fake Left, go Right, deny and obfuscate whenever it serves his purposes. Assuming he really did know about the decision, why did he do it? And if he didn’t, why doesn’t he intervene to stop it?
The NYT puts the blame on his coalition partners: “when he formed his coalition a year ago,” we are told, “he joined forces with several right-wing parties, and has since found it hard to keep them in line.” This is, of course, a bizarre distortion: Netanyahu chose his coalition partners as a product of their strength, which in turn reflects what the voters actually wanted on issues like these. It’s also a distortion because the left-wing Labor party, which is in the coalition, doesn’t seem to be pulling out any time soon. And it’s a distortion because the Kadima party, the leading opposition party and the only alternative to Netanyahu’s coalition partners, was founded on a platform that included the indivisibility of Jerusalem.
What Netanyahu knows, and Biden apparently does not, is that the vast majority of Israelis, including those who favor a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians, do not, and will never, look at Jerusalem as a settlement or at residents of its neighborhoods as “settlers.” We can fully understand why Biden might have thought the move to be “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.” At a time when he’s trying to show the American public that he and the president are capable of bringing a new era of peace in the region, such an announcement certainly does not make his job easier. But unlike the U.S., Israel is an actual party to the negotiations and has a right to draw red lines. One such line that must not be crossed is undoing the unification of Jerusalem that happened in 1967 and that still captures the imagination and commitment of both the great majority of Israelis and a very large number of Diaspora Jews. Jerusalem is home to more than 700,000 citizens, of whom two-thirds are Jews. It has granted far greater and more liberal access to non-Jews worshiping at its shrines than the Palestinians have ever done with regard to Jewish (and Christian) freedom in the territories it controls. This is a great deal to ask in time of ongoing war.
One of the worst things about the Oslo Accords was the logic that said, “Let’s take care of the easy things first, and wait on the hard issues until later.” And so, while the Palestinians were allowed to create a heavily armed, ideologically belligerent, terror-supporting government in the territories Israel vacated, Israel gained nothing in terms of security, while the “hard issues” like Jerusalem and the repatriation of millions of Palestinians remained up in the air, not as questions to be resolved, but as threats hanging over Israelis’ heads: You can give us these, and face demographic and symbolic decimation; or you can refuse, and face a renewal of violence. When it became clear to Arafat that Israel had no intention of giving in on these core issues, all the “trust” that had been built was suddenly meaningless. He launched the second intifada, and the rest is too well known.
In making the move on Jerusalem, the Israeli government is trying to avoid the ambiguities that were the undoing of Oslo. Anyone hoping for a successful negotiation leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, they are saying, had better forget about the division of Jerusalem. Sometimes, it’s the timing that drives the point home.