Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Obama and the Consensus on Jerusalem

Leftists in both Israel and the United States would like President Obama to try and impose a peace plan on Israel in his second term. But the main plank of any American or international diktat is something that the vast majority of Israelis will not accept: division of Jerusalem. Earlier today, Evelyn Gordon wrote about how the woman leading the Labor Party back to political relevance has similar positions to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the peace process. But Shelly Yacimovich isn’t the only rising star of Israeli politics that wants no part of any Obama diktat. Haaretz repots today that Yair Lapid, the head of the new centrist party Yesh Atid, went even further than Yacimovich.

Lapid said yesterday that he explicitly opposes the division of Jerusalem and that retention of the united city by Israel is not an obstacle to the signing of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. This is significant not just because it shows that Israeli centrists are competing with Netanyahu for votes by taking allegedly right-wing stands on peace process issues, but also because it runs completely contrary to one of the firmest positions articulated by the Obama administration in the last four years.

If there has been one point of contention with Israel on which the president has pushed the envelope farther than any of his predecessors it is Jerusalem. While all American governments have refused to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the entire city, let alone over those parts of it that were occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 commonly known as East Jerusalem, Obama has gone further than that. Previous administrations had tacitly accepted the Jewish neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city, most of which are 40 or more years old, as de facto parts of Israel. By contrast, Obama has treated these neighborhoods as being the equivalent of the most remote hilltop settlement in the West Bank.

It was over a housing project in one of these existing Jewish city neighborhoods that the president started a major ruckus with Israel because the announcement of the approval came during a visit by Vice President Biden. This supposed “insult” to Biden became a diplomatic crisis that supposedly demonstrated the extremism of Netanyahu. Yet as Lapid’s statement shows, Netanyahu’s position on the city still represents a solid consensus of Israeli public opinion, not just that of the settler minority.

I think Lapid is wrong when he says the Palestinian Authority will consent to a peace deal that leaves Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, since it’s quite clear that neither the PA under Mahmoud Abbas nor its Hamas rivals will recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state under any circumstances. But the Lapid statement also shows why President Obama’s attempts to undermine Netanyahu politically have failed. Though Israelis don’t want their leaders to be entangled in disputes with their only ally, they resented the president’s stand on their capital and backed Netanyahu.

If Lapid, whose party may turn out to be the third biggest in the next Knesset now that Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu has merged with Likud (Yacimovich’s Labor is the likely runner-up), is in agreement with Netanyahu on Jerusalem, it’s clear that the overwhelming majority of the Israeli public will not accept one of the key provisions in every plan that is put forward as a solution to be imposed on the Israelis: division of the city. That’s something that would remain true even if, as is quite unlikely, former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni were able to persuade President Shimon Peres to step down and lead a new anti-Netanyahu alliance in the January elections.

Though Netanyahu is not in as strong a position as he was a few months ago, the notion that the Israeli center rejects his position on peace is a leftist delusion. Quite the contrary, it is time for those who call themselves friends of Israel but wish to override its democratic system to ponder why they are so out of touch with the views of most Israelis.