The day opened with the front headline in Yedioth Ahronoth quoting the American demand from Israel not to go on with a new building project of some 900 housing units in Gilo, a Jerusalem neighborhood on the eastern (Palestinian) side of the Green line. Just a few hours passed, and the city’s Planning Committee happily approved the project. The committee also had a few words for those who didn’t get the message:
“The fact that the United States is against this or not is not a factor,” one of the committee members told Ynet. “According to what is accepted at the moment, this territory belongs to Jerusalem and to Israel, and thus the Israeli planning and construction law applies to it and the committee must discuss the plan.”
The US was quick to response. Politico’s Laura Rosen’s reports:
In a rare White House statement on the Middle East peace process, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs issued a stand-alone statement from China today expressing sharp dismay at an Israeli municipal body’s decision to expand the Gilo settlement.
“We are dismayed at the Jerusalem Planning Committee’s decision to move forward on the approval process for the expansion of Gilo in Jerusalem,” Gibbs said in a statement. “At a time when we are working to re-launch negotiations, these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed. Neither party should engage in efforts or take actions that could unilaterally pre-empt, or appear to pre-empt, negotiations. The U.S. also objects to other Israeli practices in Jerusalem related to housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. Our position is clear: the status of Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the parties.”
Forgive me if I’m not so sure this one will keep the lights on all night in Netanyahu’s office.
No really, what are they thinking at the White House? The President’s spokesman, during a key visit to China, exchanging messages with Jerusalem’s Planning Committee? And when the president of the United States is practically being told to go to hell by some low level bureaucrats, the administration chooses to response publicly by expressing “dismay”? what’s next? An attack of “concern”? How do they ever expect to be taken seriously?
This whole fiasco just shows how hopeless things are, with regards to any diplomatic progress. Unless there are some big things happening in the background, it seems that the administration simply lost its way. First the US is rushing to declare that it will object a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence, and then the White House is surprised – astonished! – that it has no leverage over Jerusalem.
Gibbs could have been ten times more effective if instead of saying that such actions “make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed” (and they say Democrats can’t use force!), he would have said, even hinted, that unilateral steps by Israel – and basically, this is what these settlements are, one big, decades-old, unilateral move – will make the US consider supporting the Palestinian unilateralism. And you know what? He didn’t even have to go public. A phone call to Netanyahu would have worked even better, and it wouldn’t have hurt the administration with its Jewish base. But I guess someone though that a statements fight with the Jerusalem city hall would be smarter.
There is another important issue this story raises, this time on the Israeli side. It is just inconceivable how the whole debate in the world has nothing to do with what’s going on here. When Israelis are thinking about settlement freeze, they are thinking Ariel, a town some 15 mills deep into the West Bank, or the Jewish colony in the Arab city of Hebron. This is what we are negotiation, as far as Israelis are concerned. Nobody even considers stopping the Israeli colonization project of Jerusalem, which is specifically designed to make the separation of the city impossible. Listen to the Israeli ministers, declaring one after the other how we will go on settling there forever. Read the comments on the news sites. There is a total miscommunication with the world, US included.
The result is that when Israelis are discussing territorial compromises, they are doing it with themselves. Barak says we should give up 80 percent of the land; Mofaz says 60, and nobody knows what Netanyahu’s number is. The public is not even considering what the international community views as a starting point – a total settlement freeze, followed by evacuation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And the government is not doing anything to negotiate this point of view to the people; quite the opposite. This goes as well for Barak and Olmert’s “generous offers”, supposedly given in the past. They were generous only in our eyes. Israelis are talking among themselves. They don’t listen to the world, let alone the Palestinians. The message from earth didn’t get through.
Expressing “dismay” or “concern” won’t change that.