“A pointless provocation” – that is how Ha'aretz, perhaps Israel’s most influential daily newspaper, categorises the latest building plan to emanate from the Interior Ministry and the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, not to mention the planning authorities in the West Bank city of Ariel.
At the very moment when the fate of the suspended peace talks is in the balance, and when Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, is trying to convince public opinion about the sincerity of Israel’s efforts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, these right-wing authorities have thought it appropriate to announce a plan for new construction beyond the "Green Line" that separates West Jerusalem from the parts of the city captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War – over 1,000 additional housing units in Har Homa, a neighbourhood south of Jerusalem, and another 800 units in Ariel.
It is a cruel trick of fate that the senior US figure with whom Netanyahu is discussing the future of the peace initiative in Washington, in addition to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is the Vice President, Joe Biden – the self-same Biden so publicly humiliated in Israel back in March. Arriving to inaugurate the carefully prepared “proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinians – the first formal contact between them for over a year – Biden had no sooner set foot on Israeli soil than Israel's Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, who also happens to be the leader of the religious Shas party, authorised the final approval of a scheme to construct 1600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-orthodox Jewish district of Jerusalem beyond the Green Line. Poor Joe Biden must now be experiencing stomach-curdling feelings of déja vu.
It is no comfort to anyone, least of all the Palestinian leaders, that the building plans just announced are more than a year from being implemented. Palestinian leaders interpret the latest announced expansion as a sign that Israel has turned its back on the face-to-face peace talks. “Israel’s latest announcement of more settlement construction,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, “further threatens the already stagnated negotiations process.”
President Obama, currently in far-off Indonesia, categorises the announcement as “never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations” – a comparatively muted reaction compared with that of Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, who called for the expansion to be reversed. At his press conference, Obama said that in spite of the announced construction programme, the USA was committed to a two-state solution based on a negotiated settlement. “I’m concerned,” he said, “that we’re not seeing each side make the extra effort involved to get a breakthrough that could finally create a framework for a secure Israel living side by side in peace with a sovereign Palestine. We’re going to keep on working on it though, because it is in the world’s interest, it is in the interest of the people of Israel, and it is in the interest of the Palestinian people to achieve that settlement, to achieve that agreement.”
The London Financial Times reports that several analysts and officials have been arguing that the timing of the announcements, just ahead of Netanyahu’s meeting with Secretary of State Clinton, was no coincidence, and suggested they could in fact be part of an Israeli effort to prepare the ground for a new freeze on settlement construction. By allowing such sweeping plans to move ahead now, it has been argued, Netanyahu may be hoping to limit right-wing and settler opposition should he decide to implement a new building moratorium.
The US administration has repeatedly urged Israel to renew its 10-month freeze on settlement building, which lapsed in September. Washington believes a new moratorium is vital to reviving deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. So the American response to the new building announcement, an expression of deep disappointment, is not a surprise, but makes little impression on the Interior Ministry, the Jerusalem municipality, and the Ariel patrons, who glory in macho gestures in reaction to American pressure, regardless of their wider implications.
“It has thus become clear to everyone,” states Ha’aretz in a hard-hitting editorial, “that two governments rule the state: one which tries to demonstrate willingness to operate in a framework that could possibly lead to peace talks and an agreement, and another one that acts to destroy this framework. If the prime minister does not immediately announce his opposition to these construction plans, and his intention to defer them at least until a new agreement is reached concerning talks with the Palestinians, he will be unable to convince anyone that he really wants peace.”
But in his latest statement Netanyahu asserted that Israel does not see any connection between the peace process and the policy of planning and construction in Jerusalem. "For the last 40 years," he maintains, "every Israeli government built in every part of the city. During that period, peace agreements were signed with Egypt and Jordan, and for 17 years direct negotiations were held with the Palestinians. These are historical facts. Construction in Jerusalem has never interfered with the peace process.”
Washington disagrees. “There clearly is a link,” says State Department spokesman P J Crowley, “in the sense that it is incumbent upon both parties ... they are responsible for creating conditions for a successful negotiation. To suggest that this kind of announcement would not have an impact on the Palestinian side I think is incorrect.”
"I think it's overblown," riposted Netanyahu in a television interview with the Fox Business Network. "You are talking about a handful of apartments that really don't affect the map at all, contrary to impressions that might be perceived from certain news reports. So it's a minor issue that might be turned to a major issue. I think this is wrong."
Tension over settlements was diverting attention from more important topics, said Netanyahu, claiming that despite continued building in East Jerusalem, an agreement could be reached if both sides wanted it. "You put the minor issues aside and you deal with the major issues…and you try to fashion a peace deal. If there's a deal to be made there, you'll see it in a year. If there's not a deal," he said, "then we won't succeed."
In his television appearance, Netanyahu stuck rigidly to the Israeli line that it was Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, rather than settlements, that had left negotiations deadlocked soon after they began in Washington two months ago.
"Peace is going to be tough," he said, "but I think it's in our common interest to get it. It depends on their willingness to recognize Israel, to recognize the Jewish state as we recognize the Palestinian state, to end the conflict."
The Palestinians want a freeze on construction in the West Bank; the Israelis want Israel acknowledged as a Jewish state. The one is not an unstoppable force, nor the other an immovable object. There is room for give on both sides. Have they the will and the skill to find it?