Two weeks ago, diplomatic relations between the United States and Israel took an unexpected turn. During Vice President Biden’s trip to Israel, the Israeli government announced a plan to construct 1600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. This move embarrassed the Obama administration, which was attempting to restart proximity talks, while simultaneously angering Palestinians. It led to Palestinian demonstrations in the Old City and East Jerusalem and culminated with Israel deploying 3,000 troops to the area. Fears of a third Palestinian intifada, or uprising, were alleviated last Wednesday as tension began to dissipate. However, a highly public disagreement ensued between Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This diplomatic row is one of the worst public disputes between Washington and Jerusalem in recent decades.
Secretary Clinton demanded a public gesture of reassurance from Israel in order to confirm that it is committed to restarting the peace negotiations. In the last few days, Israel has responded to this request. In a good faith gesture, Netanyahu announced that Israel would ease the Gaza blockade and release some Fatah prisoners (Haaretz). The Prime Minister, however, is standing firm on the issue of these new building plans. While apologizing for the timing of the announcement, he has refused to call off the planed construction. In fact, Netanyahu has pointed out that construction in East Jerusalem has been a part of the agenda of previous Israeli administrations and furthermore it was never part of last year’s building freeze. It is important to consider the precarious situation that Netanyahu finds himself in. His coalition depends on right-wing parties who will not tolerate a decrease in the construction of new settlement units. So if he were to contradict this ill-timed announcement, he might risk the collapse of his coalition government.
This week both Netanyahu and Clinton will attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington. Netanyahu will also meet with President Obama during his trip. Additionally, after delaying his trip during the height of the disagreement, George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, will also be arriving in Israel (Jerusalem Post). These meetings will be an opportunity for both sides to clarify their expectations of each other and smooth over any lingering animosity.
Building in East Jerusalem is one of the major obstacles to securing a peace settlement in the Middle East. The Palestinians consider East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state and resent what in their eyes’ is the continued Israeli occupation. Going even further, critics see the continued building as a sign that Israel does not realistically want a two state solution; or at least not one that includes East Jerusalem. But it seems likelier that Netanyahu is trying to find the balance between satisfying his coalition partners and making concessions towards the Palestinians. Whichever interpretation you believe, the issue of the final status of Jerusalem and the matter of settlements are essential components of the peace process.
Perhaps, in the end, this dispute will produce a positive result. Israel may have needed a catalyst to galvanize it into making real concessions. It is time that both the Palestinians and the Israelis sit down at the negotiating table and discuss the controversial but important topics; these include the status of Jerusalem, refugees, security, borders, and settlements in East Jerusalem. These are sensitive issues for both sides but without a genuine desire for peace, these obstacles will not be overcome. The Israelis and the Palestinians need to decide if they have had enough fighting and are ready to live with a two state solution. If this is the case, proximity talks and mediators seem secondary. The most important step is tackling these contentious topics from the beginning; otherwise, the peace process will continue to be at a standstill.
~ Alissa Aronovici