FRIEDMAN & SEIDEMANN: Bibi goes nuclear on Jerusalem settlements November 20, 2009

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by Lara Friedman (Americans for Peace Now) & Danny Seidemann (Ir Amim) Americans for Peace Now -  17 November 2009

Yesterday (16/11) Special Envoy Mitchell met with Israeli chief negotiator Yitzhak Molcho in London.  One topic discussed, apparently, was a new Israeli plan (number 13157) to expand the Jerusalem settlement of Gilo.  The plan was on the agenda of the Jerusalem Regional Planning Committee today (Tues); barring outside intervention, the Committee was expected to approve the deposit of the plan for public review – a significant step toward its implementation.

Within a few hours of the end of the London meeting, the Gilo plan exploded as the top story/above-the-fold/giant headline on the front page of Yediot Ahronot – Israel’s largest circulation daily. The headline in the Hebrew print edition read:  “US: Don’t Build in Gilo Neighborhood; Astonishment in Israel from a New American Demand.”

This is a crisis engineered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  A crisis intended to create a head-on collision with the Obama Administration over Jerusalem.  The Obama Administration had no choice but to intervene on this plan.  And while Bibi had a number of “conventional” options for dealing with the issue, he chose to go nuclear by making this issue – and his defiance of US concerns – a top story.  In doing so, he has undermined the prospects for the very negotiations he claims he wants.

First, some background is in order, because the plan is being spun in the Israeli press as something simple and non-controversial – construction in one of the oldest Israelis settlements in East Jerusalem, one that many Israelis forget is technically a settlement at all.

This is, of course, just spin.  The plan, if implemented, will allow the construction of 844 units, and these units won’t be inside the existing footprint of the settlement.  Rather, they will be on the settlement’s southwestern flank, expanding Gilo in the direction of the Palestinian village of Wallajeh (a village in which a large number of the homes are fighting Israeli demolition orders).  This new Gilo plan clearly dovetails with another plan to build a new settlement, called Givat Yael, which would straddle the Jerusalem border and significantly extend Israeli Jerusalem to the south, further sealing the city off from the Bethlehem area and the West Bank (and connecting it to the Etzion settlement bloc).  That plan, it was reported yesterday, also appears to be suddenly gaining steam. (for a map showing both the Gilo plan and Givat Yael, click here.)

The Gilo plan is thus extremely provocative on several levels.  It represents a clear and public statement from the Netanyahu government that it is neither “freezing” nor acting with “restraint” in East Jerusalem.  It compels the Palestinians to respond, just as it compels other regional actors to respond.  Finally, it has important strategic implications, since the plan, implemented, would impact on border options for Jerusalem under a future peace agreement.

Today’s crisis was by no means inevitable.  Nobody (except for those of us who obsessively follow Jerusalem at its most minute level) had any idea this Gilo plan was on the agenda for today.  This means that Bibi could easily have responded positively to US concerns and quietly quashed or delayed the project, without any political cost.   Alternatively, he could have offered another (deceptively) constructive course, like allowing it to be deposited for public review but promising to find other ways to hold it up later.  Or he could simply have refused to intervene, but kept quiet about it – letting today’s technical approval process run it course and only react publicly, after the fact.

Bibi had a number of conventional options; he chose to go nuclear.

If this feels familiar, it should.  This is basically what happened earlier this year with the Shepherds Hotel settlement in Sheikh Jarrah.  The plan was on the agenda, Washington weighed in firmly but quietly, hoping for firm but quiet action by Netanyahu – and instead they got a story leaked to the Israeli media (in fact, to the same journalist who broke today’s Gilo story), turning it into an opportunity for Netanyahu to burnish his Jerusalem credentials, at the expense of the prospects for peace.

Or for those who have a longer memory, this might remind them of Har Homa.  The US had strongly and consistently opposed construction of this settlement (located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem), but that didn’t stop Bibi from using it twice to “balance” pro-peace moves – first in 1997 (after the signing the Hebron Agreement), and again in 1998 (immediately after his cabinet endorsed the Wye River Memorandum).  Today Har Homa is home to around 10,000 Israelis and still expanding.

This time around, there is no Hebron Agreement or Wye Memorandum, but there is the much-discussed settlement “moratorium” that one might have expected to be announced any day now.  A moratorium that was going to be a hard sell for the Obama Administration under the best of circumstances, given the dominant narrative of “you promised a full freeze and you failed to deliver.”  Now, with Bibi going nuclear on the Jerusalem issue, it is hard to see how any settlement “moratorium” – no matter what its details- can credibly be used to promote negotiations.

The Gilo plan did indeed come up in today’s meeting of the Jerusalem Regional Planning Board which, no surprise, decided to approve the deposit of Plan 13157 for public review.  This does not mean implementation is inevitable – by no means – but it does mean that it now requires the investment of serious political capital to stop.

So what happens next?   It is imperative that Netanyahu be convinced – by Israelis, by Washington, by Jewish voices worldwide, by the international community – to swear off nuclear tactics in Jerusalem.    And not only with respect to the Gilo project, but with respect to all of the other projects and plans that are in the drawers of troublemakers in the various ministries and municipal offices – including those under the authority of Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who seems almost childishly eager to fan the flames of conflict in the city.  Plans like E1 and the Old City Historic Basin project.

He must do so for the sake of Israel’s own best interests.

Let no one be confused:  no genuine Israeli interest is served by any of these projects, unless one perceives the Israeli interest as the prevention of credible negotiations with the Palestinians that could lead to a two-state solution.  Or, to put it more crassly, the only interest served by these projects is the prevention of the two-state solution and the transformation of the Israeli-Arab conflict from a difficult but resolvable conflict over territory into an irresolvable zero-sum religious war.

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