The lead article above the fold in Sunday’s New York Times teases President Obama’s visit to Israel by focusing on what it represents as a serious threat to the chances of peace: the building of homes by Jews in Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. As the piece states, the government of Israel is not looking to provide any pretext for a fight with the Obama administration. So there will be no announcements of government-sponsored housing starts in the capital that have been portrayed as “insults” to the U.S. in order for the president to gin up spats between the two allies. As Eli Lake writes today in the Daily Beast, a “détente” now exists between the two governments that de-emphasizes the moribund peace process with the Palestinians and is allowing them to cooperate more closely on the nuclear threat from Iran. But for those determined to pin blame on Israelis for the lack of progress toward an end to the conflict with the Palestinians, Jerusalem remains a hot-button issue.
As the Times reports, the purchase of property in the Old City and in other parts of Jerusalem that are majority Arab is viewed as an unwelcome provocation by the United States, but it can’t pin the blame for it on Prime Minister Netanyahu since these are private initiatives. In the past, Obama foolishly picked fights about building in existing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that even he understands would remain part of Jerusalem in the event the Palestinians ever decided to make peace. Such building in those places as well as in the settlement blocs that Israel would also retain has no effect on the prospects for peace. But peace plans backed by the U.S. and offered by past Israeli governments did offer the Palestinian Authority sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in the city. So would the presence of a few scattered groups of Jews in those areas really “complicate” a solution for peace if the will for peace existed on both sides? The only honest answer to that question is no.
It should first be understood that the whole discussion of what Israeli policies would or would not enhance the chances for peace is itself something of a diversion from reality. Successive Israeli governments, including the present one, have endorsed a two-state solution. Three times—in 2000, 2001 and 2008—it offered the Palestinians an independent state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem that would include the areas that are discussed in the Times feature. Each time, they rejected the offers.
While critics of Israel keep saying that settlements are precluding the chance of peace, were the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table (which they have refused to do since the end of 2008), these offers might or might not be put back in play. Especially after the disastrous withdrawal from Gaza, which resulted in the territory becoming a huge terror base rather than advancing the chances for peace, the Israeli people are far more skeptical about such schemes. But were the PA ever to show its commitment to ending the conflict, anything would be possible.
But in the absence of such a commitment, talk about Israeli home building preventing peace is simply an attempt to divert attention from Palestinian rejectionism.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas did take up Netanyahu’s offer to conduct peace talks anywhere, anytime. Would the building in Arab areas stop such an initiative from succeeding?
As the Times relates, the sum total of Jews living in those neighborhoods amounts to approximately 2,200 people living in scattered homes and apartments. They, like the Jews living in far-flung settlements deep in the West Bank, would oppose being put into a putative state of Palestine. But were such an agreement truly promising peace, rather than a truce that would only postpone further Palestinian efforts to destroy Israel, it is not likely they would prevail in stopping such an agreement from being ratified or implemented. But if peace were really in the offing, the question arises: why would the presence of a few Jews in parts of their ancient capital be so offensive to the Palestinians?
The fact is, it is not a few people whom the Times characterize as extremists that oppose a partition of Jerusalem. The overwhelming majority of Israelis think division of the city is unworkable and not likely to enhance the chances of peace. Moreover, unlike the editors of the Times and others who insist that only an Israeli commitment to leave parts of Jerusalem will bring peace, most Israelis understand the Palestinians aren’t remotely interested in peace on virtually any terms that would require them to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state.
Given the ongoing Palestinian hostility to Israel’s existence and support for terror, many Israelis would question the wisdom of further entangling the Jewish and Arab populations by building in Arab neighborhoods. But few would question the right of Jews to live there.
As the final Palestinian quoted in the piece says, the Arabs are still laboring under the delusion that the Jews can be made to think Jerusalem isn’t “their place” or “their land” and will be made to leave. So long as attitudes such as these prevail, peace is truly impossible no matter what Israel’s government or its citizens say or do.