Thursday, March 11, 2010

Announcing Construction of East Jerusalem Apartments: Stupid, Yes; Proof of Disinterest in Peace, No

By Barry Rubin

There’s been a lot of nonsense written about an Israeli government announcement that 1600 apartments will be built in east Jerusalem. The timing was stupid, of course, since Vice-President Joe Biden was in town and didn’t like the idea. Moreover, to have such an announcement just when indirect talks were about to start between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) doesn’t make Israel look helpful.

But that’s about it.

Anyone who knows Israel really well understands this to be what is called locally a “fashla,” that is a stupid mess-up as often happens with the government there. Israel combines the candor of a First World country with the bureaucratic incompetence of a Third World one. The ministry simply didn’t think about what the impact would be nor did it consult with the prime minister’s office. It was sheer narrow-visioned incompetence.

Of course, though, Israel has announced since 1993, when the Oslo Agreement was signed, that it would continue building on existing settlements. And the government made clear all along that construction would continue in east Jerusalem. The action, if not the timing, was neither a provocation, the establishment of a “new settlement,” or proof that Israel didn’t want peace.

After all, everyone seems to have forgotten one simple fact: the U.S. government officially accepted Israel's position that it would keep building in east Jerusalem. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton praised the resulting deal. So how all of a sudden can Joe Biden and the U.S. government say they are shocked, shocked to see that construction (in east Jerusalem) is going on when they agreed to that point months ago? (Doesn't it seem rather important for the media to highlight that point rather than make it sound that--aside from the bad timing--Israel did something horrible and unexpected to the U.S. government?)

And while much of the Western media is giving the impression that this is some new settlement far over the pre-1967 border, since this is such a huge news story one might think journalists would point out the distance it is from that line. Answer: about five city blocks.

They might also want to explain why this additional housing is being built: it is a neighborhood of Haredim ("Ultra-Orthodox") Jews who have the highest birth rate in Israel and thus need some more apartments due to that fact. The minister who announced the new apartments comes from this group and was only concerned with showing them what a great job he was doing.

Actually, it’s sort of amusing that with the PA sabotaging negotiations for around 14 months while Israel was seeking them, the PA’s behavior isn’t taken as some proof that it doesn’t want peace while Israel’s single action demonstrates the opposite.

What this announcement really shows is that Israel doesn’t want or intend to give up all of east Jerusalem as part of a peace agreement, which is not exactly news.

Would it be better for Israel’s international position if the announcement had not been made? Yes. Because it allows the United States—which needs excuses for the failure to succeed at peacemaking—and the PA and Arab states—which need some rationale for their own policies to blame Israel

But does it really do any material harm to a peace process which is going nowhere due to Palestinian positions? Or does it make the PA and Arab states, which are supposedly salivating for a peace deal, change their mind? In both cases, no.

So, stupid yes. But deliberate sabotage or proof of warmongering? No.

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