Secretary of State John Kerry is back in Israel today for another bout of what some wags are calling “couples therapy” for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas. The chances of this push leading to fruitful negotiations, let alone a peace agreement, are slim. But what is most interesting about the chatter all this talking about talking is producing is the way the Palestinians and other critics of Israel are trying to raise the ante even before anyone sits down together. Thus, the willingness of PA negotiator Saeb Erekat to turn the announcement of building permits in a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem into an excuse for not making peace tells us a lot more about the Palestinian mindset than it does about the Netanyahu government.
The permits for constructing 69 apartments in the Har Homa neighborhood was treated as a big deal in today’s New York Times, which validated Erekat’s attempt to inflate the decision into a cause célèbre. The Times was also quick to compare it to the 2010 episode in which the Obama administration picked a fight with Netanyahu over a routine announcement about a housing start in a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. The administration claimed it was an “insult” to Vice President Joe Biden, who happened to be passing through the city at the time. Little good came of that for anyone, especially since the Palestinians failed to use the U.S. tilt in their direction by returning to peace talks. But it bears repeating that the Palestinian desire to claim that any building in parts of Jerusalem that were once illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 and during which Jews were banned from even worshiping at the Western Wall–let alone living in those parts of their ancient capital–is an obstacle to peace simply doesn’t make any sense.
Even under a peace plan, such as the one proposed by Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert, Israel would retain Har Homa and other Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem–though the former PM did concede sovereignty over the Old City (something few Israelis would accept). The point is, if the Palestinians really want a state in almost all the West Bank (something Netanyahu has signaled this week he can live with) and a share of Jerusalem, what does it matter to them how many Jews live in the parts they won’t get?
Palestinian objections about building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem are no more logical than Israeli complaints about Arabs building homes in the West Bank in parts of the country that would not remain under Israeli control. But Israel isn’t complaining about Arab building. They’re just asking the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table without preconditions after boycotting talks for four and a half years.
But, of course, such Palestinian complaints do make sense, at least from the point of view of most Palestinians. Their goal isn’t a state alongside Israel or to share Jerusalem. They want Jews out of Har Homa for the same reason they want them out of most other parts of the country since what they desire is a Palestinian state free of Jews.
Attempts to depict the Jewish presence in Jerusalem as illegal is deeply offensive, but in line with PA propaganda that has consistently sought to deny Jewish ties to the city and Jewish history itself. While the PA cannot be under any illusion that the Netanyahu government—or any Israeli government for that matter, regardless of who is at its head—would consent to giving up Jerusalem, what they want is to brand every Jew there a “settler” who can be treated as an outlaw rather than a party to talks with rights. Treating building even in those areas that no one thinks would be handed over to the Palestinians under any circumstance as off limits is not about making peace. It’s about delegitimizing Israel.
So long as the Palestinians cling to the delusion that Israel will be shifted out of Jerusalem or back to the 1967 lines—something that President Obama has reinforced with his frequent support for using those lines as the starting point for talks, should they ever be resumed—the chances that a peace agreement will ever be signed is nonexistent. Peace is theoretically possible on terms that would call for the Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state. The focus on opposing the Jewish presence in the city is a sign that we are a long way away from that happening.