The conventional wisdom about the Israeli government’s decision to allow new building projects in Jerusalem in the E1 area between the city and the Ma’ale Adumim suburb is that it was a blunder. Critics of Prime Minister Netanyahu claim the move has worsened relations with the United States, alienated European nations and heightened the country’s diplomatic isolation. Others claim that in doing so he has “distracted” the world from concentrating on the nuclear threat from Iran. Even worse, most of his detractors are sure that the only reason he did it was to appease more extreme members of his party so as to secure their support in the upcoming Knesset election. Seen in that light, calling it a blunder would seem to be charitable.
But like most pieces of conventional wisdom, the assumption that Netanyahu has hurt his country is not accurate. Even if shovels went in the ground in the E1 area tomorrow — something that actually won’t happen for a long time, if ever — Israel would be no more or less isolated than it was the day before the announcement. Nor would relations with the Obama administration be any better. All Netanyahu has done is to remind his country’s critics that Israel isn’t willing to lie down and accept the false narrative about the West Bank and Jerusalem that was swallowed whole at the United Nations last week. As Seth wrote earlier, this won’t change Israel’s relationship with Europe. The focus on the European and American positions on settlements has obscured the fact that the primary audience for this move is in Ramallah, not Paris, London or Washington. The E1 decision sends a necessary signal to the Palestinians lest they be deceived by their triumph in the General Assembly. What Netanyahu has done is to show Israel won’t give up an inch of territory unless the Palestinians return to the negotiating table and even then, only if they agree to end the conflict for all time.
The Palestinian Authority tried the UN gambit in order to avoid negotiations with Israel that might place its leader Mahmoud Abbas back in the embarrassing position of having to flee from another Israeli offer of statehood. While he has no intention of ever being put on the spot in that matter again, Abbas may be under the impression that the Israelis can be hammered into more unilateral concessions by means of foreign pressure.
This is a common thread that runs throughout the history of the conflict in which the Palestinian Arab leadership has always thought they could evade their responsibility to deal directly with Israel. It is a belief that was encouraged by President Obama’s foolish decision at the outset of his administration that peace would be brought closer by creating more daylight between Israel and the United States. The fights Obama picked with Israel only served to make it even more difficult for Abbas to come to the table even if he had wanted to.
Had the Europeans behaved in a principled manner and rebuffed the UN upgrade as a clear violation of the Oslo Accords, as they should have, it could be argued that Netanyahu’s decision would have been a mistake. But since the Europeans abandoned the peace process that they had heretofore championed, it was necessary for Israel to remind Abbas that he should realize that the vote in New York wouldn’t mean a thing on the ground in the Middle East.
As for the idea–repeated today by the editorial page of the New York Times–that E1 will make the world less willing to restrain Iran, the notion that the U.S. or Europe can hold Israel hostage on that issue is nonsensical. Iran is as much a threat to the rest of the world as it is to Israel, a point that President Obama has made time and again. Nor is there any evidence that any concessions on settlements made by Israel would make the administration any less reluctant to take action on Iran than it otherwise would be.
Despite all the huffing and puffing about E1, the move has not changed a thing between Israel and the West. But it was exactly what the Palestinians needed to hear. Had Netanyahu failed to remind Abbas he will pay a price for ditching Oslo, that would have been the real blunder.