The Middle East Channel

Why Jerusalem is (sometimes) the wrong fight to pick

[With the backdrop of the settlements and East Jerusalem dispute, this is the second in a series of three pieces looking at historical precedents and how they might inform the current debate. For the first in the series, please click here.] Trying to hold Israel to the coals over its construction in East Jerusalem, as ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

[With the backdrop of the settlements and East Jerusalem dispute, this is the second in a series of three pieces looking at historical precedents and how they might inform the current debate. For the first in the series, please click here.]

Trying to hold Israel to the coals over its construction in East Jerusalem, as the Obama administration has been doing for the past two weeks, may have been necessary in the wake of the Biden visit provocation, but it doesn’t make for a smart, ongoing tactic.

The administration, worried about America’s image in the Arab world, has been trying to look tough ever since the Israeli government tactlessly announced the building of 1,600 new houses in Ramat Shlomo, a settlement area in East Jerusalem just across the Green Line, while Vice President Joseph Biden was visiting. This week the White House gave Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu a very public snub by denying him the customary photo-op and press conference on his visit to President Barack Obama in Washington.

Some even think the snub was a direct reaction to Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC the previous night. He had given a textbook expostulation of what Danny Seidemann and Lara Friedman recently called the "everybody knows" fallacy: that there is no point in making a fuss about places like Ramat Shlomo because "everybody knows" that if there is a peace deal, they will end up as part of Israel. As Seidemann and Friedman point out, the longer we wait for a peace deal, the more of the land around Jerusalem will become everybody-knows territory, until the point where, if there is ever a Palestinian state, East Jerusalem, its supposed capital, will be a dingy border town barely accessible to the rest of Palestine.

This is true. But while raising a stink about Ramat Shlomo may have succeeded in making Netanyahu squirm this time-and is symbolically important to the Arabs-a knee-jerk focus on the everybody-knows places is not going to achieve much.

Partly this is because, ever since the U.S. tried last year to insist on a total settlement freeze and then backed down, Israel doesn’t take these protests seriously. But mainly it’s because it distracts attention from some things that matter more — and where Netanyahu is also on weaker ground.

One of those things is what Israel is up to in the undeveloped areas around Jerusalem that are not yet everybody-knows land. The zone known as E1, a stubbly and largely empty (save for a few Palestinian homes) row of hillsides, is slated to be filled with Israeli housing to create a continuous swathe of urbanity between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim, a large settlement that juts deep into the West Bank. It would complete the isolation of Arab East Jerusalem. So far the only finished building there is, of all things, a police station. And, according to a recent investigation by an Israeli newspaper, it was mainly paid for not by public funds, as you would expect a police station to be, but by private money from a right-wing settler organization. This raises interesting and disturbing questions about who pulls the strings in Israel, which the Americans really should ask Mr. Netanyahu.

Another thing they should is ask is why, five years after an Israeli government lawyer, Talya Sasson, issued a blistering report on the spread of wildcat "outpost" settlements that even Israel considers illegal, and that both Mr. Netanyahu and the Labor party leader and minister of defense, Ehud Barak, have promised to crack down on, are there more of them than ever?

Or why, if most Israelis and even Mr. Netanyahu himself now agree that Israel will eventually have to renounce the West Bank, are there still tax breaks for settlers who move there? A sizeable group of Israeli parliamentarians supports a bill drafted two years ago that would offer incentives to settlers to move back into Israel. Doing so would in no way threaten Israeli security, even in the absence of a peace process. Quite the reverse, in fact-it would mean fewer Israelis in the West Bank for the army to protect.

Israel has never said it wouldn’t build in places like Ramat Shlomo. It has, on the other hand, said it wants to uphold its own laws, dismantle the outposts, and give up the West Bank eventually-and most Israelis want the same things. These issues, therefore, are the Israeli government’s soft underbelly. "Everybody knows" is its protective shield. If the Obama administration wants to be effective, then instead of hammering its fists on the shield, it should stick them in where they will hurt.

Gideon Lichfield is deputy editor of The Economist‘s website, and was previously its Jerusalem correspondent. These are his personal opinions.

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