Friday’s State Department news conference lasted only 10 minutes and was devoted primarily to another harsh public condemnation of Israel:
Secretary Clinton also spoke this morning with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to reiterate the United States’ strong objections to Tuesday’s announcement, not just in terms of timing, but also in its substance; to make clear that the United States considers the announcement a deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship – and counter to the spirit of the Vice President’s trip; and to reinforce that this action had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process, and in America’s interests. The Secretary said she could not understand how this happened, particularly in light of the United States’ strong commitment to Israel’s security. And she made clear that the Israeli Government needed to demonstrate not just through words but through specific actions that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process.
Netanyahu and his Interior minister had apologized after both said they had been unaware of the announcement beforehand, pledged there would be no actual building during the “proximity talks” or the anticipated period of any direct talks thereafter, and promised such an incident would not happen again. Only three days after, Clinton issued a statement as harsh as any from the Obama administration — on any issue, foreign or domestic. In it, she voiced “strong objections” to the “substance,” an accusation of a “deeply negative signal” about the “bilateral relationship,” an assertion that it undermined “trust and confidence” in “America’s interests,” an implicit rejection of Netanyahu’s explanation, and a demand for “specific actions” to show Israel is “committed” to its relationship with the U.S.
The harshness is an indication that the administration believes its only Middle East accomplishment in the last 14 months – an agreement to begin “proximity talks” – is in jeopardy. The U.S. demand for “specific actions” arises in the context of the Palestinians demanding, yet again, a Jerusalem building freeze as the price of their participation in discussions about giving them a state.
Since Secretary Clinton raised the “substance” of the issue, not simply the timing, it is worth noting several points. First, even actual building by Israel (much less the mere announcement of building in the future) would not have violated Israel’s commitment to a 10-month moratorium, which excluded Jerusalem. Second, the area in question is one that will not be yielded to the Palestinians in any conceivable peace agreement (even one that would divide sovereignty between Jewish and Arab areas) because it is a longstanding Jewish community, not an Arab one. Third, the area has military significance, for reasons explained (and illustrated with pictures) by Israel Matzav:
What … is obvious … is how important the ridge on which Ramat Shlomo sits would be in the case of any military conflict. That’s because it overlooks – and has a clean shot – at every major highway in the city. To give one example, there’s a road … known as “Road 9.” Road 9 … has three exits: Ramat Shlomo, the ‘Cedar Tunnel’ road that connects with the Jerusalem – Tel Aviv highway, and the road that is Menachem Begin Boulevard criss-crossing the city to the south and Route 443 to the north. Those roads are critical for city traffic. … an army unit stationed atop Ramat Shlomo would have a clear shot at every one of those roads (and more).
The Palestinians can be expected to seek advantage from any Israeli diplomatic blunder, asserting that their confidence needs to be built, their trust fortified, and their preconditions met before they will continue with a process they know the U.S. is more enthusiastic about than they. But it is unfortunate and counterproductive for the U.S. to lend itself to that tactic, both in general and specifically.