Asked by Fox News in China what he thought of Israel’s plans to build 900 housing units in the Gilo neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem, President Obama responded:
“The situation in the Middle East is very difficult, and I’ve said repeatedly and I’ll say again, Israel’s security is a vital national interest to the United States, and we will make sure they are secure. I think that additional settlement building does not contribute to Israel’s security. I think it makes it harder for them to make peace with their neighbors. I think it embitters the Palestinians in a way that could end up being very dangerous.”
To most Israeli ears the statement is discordant. The avowal of commitment to Israel’s security doesn’t jibe with describing building in Gilo as “dangerously embittering” the Palestinians. Gilo, now a neighborhood of 40,000, was annexed by Israel in the aftermath of the 1967 war as part of the reunification of Jerusalem. Gilo is a fact; ordinary Israelis live in it, and calling them settlers would be laughable.
Not that Obama was breaking new ground in calling a Jewish Jerusalem neighborhood a settlement. Less than two years ago then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of another such neighborhood, Har Homa, that “Har Homa is a settlement the United States has opposed from the very beginning” and that the United States “doesn’t make a distinction” between settlement activity in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Har Homa, however, only goes back to the 1990s and is a good deal smaller than Gilo. “Gilo” and “settlement” sounds even more jarring.
Nor was Obama, of course, alone in his statement; he was leading the international charge. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokeswoman said “such actions [as building in Gilo] undermine efforts for peace and cast doubt on the viability of the two-state solution.” The British Foreign Office said that “Expanding settlements on occupied land in east Jerusalem makes [a] deal much harder. So this decision on Gilo is wrong and we oppose it.” French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, in Israel for talks, also condemned the building plans.
And back in Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the administration was “dismayed” and that both parties should avoid actions that could “preempt, or appear to preempt, negotiations.”
Just as the official international reaction was unanimous in opposing the building, the internal Israeli reaction was unanimous in supporting it—and included leading figures from both the government and the opposition.
An aide to Prime Minister Netanyahu wrote in a message to reporters that “Construction in Gilo has taken place regularly for dozens of years and there is nothing new about the current planning and construction.” Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin of Netanyahu’s Likud Party said that “new demands of the type that the Americans are airing now, pushes us toward a red line that we cannot allow ourselves to cross, and is not legitimate. The right to build in all of unified Jerusalem is not questioned in Israel….” Tzipi Livni, opposition leader and head of the left-of-center Kadima Party, told Kouchner that “Gilo is part of the Israeli consensus….”
Nir Barkat, mayor of Jerusalem, was the least restrained, stating:
“Israeli law does not discriminate between Jews and Arabs and between east and west [Jerusalem]. The demand to specifically halt construction for Jews is not legal in the U.S. or in any other enlightened country in the world.
“I cannot imagine the American administration demanding a halt to construction in the U.S. based upon race, religion or sex, and the attempt to demand this of Jerusalem constitutes a double standard and is unacceptable. The Jerusalem Municipality will continue to enable construction in all parts of the city to both Arabs and Jews, with one law for all.”
Why did Obama and the world’s criticism evoke such strong, across-the-board indignation in Israel?
For one thing, it strikes at the core Jewish value of Jerusalem. From 1948 to 1967, when the city was divided, Israelis in West Jerusalem lived with sniper fire from Jordanian East Jerusalem. Jordan not only reneged on international undertakings to permit Israeli access to Jerusalem’s Holy Basin, but desecrated and destroyed the synagogues there. Nevertheless, Israel implored Jordan not to enter the 1967 war—in vain. With united Jerusalem now in Israeli hands for forty-two years, only Israelis well to the Left are willing to countenance a redivision of the city into Arab and Jewish areas. Even under such an arrangement, neighborhoods like Gilo (and Har Homa) would remain intact and continue to grow. They are not up for discussion.
Such criticism also implies that no Israeli concessions can ever suffice. Netanyahu, a lifelong Likud figure commonly tagged as a “hawk” and “hardliner” abroad, has gone so far as to announce his preparedness for a Palestinian state (twenty years ago still a far-Left position in Israel) and for a freeze in construction throughout the West Bank. After Netanyahu had supposedly clarified with Obama that stopping construction in Jerusalem was farther than he or any Israeli prime minister could go, the president’s reference to Gilo as an “additional settlement” where building “embitters the Palestinians” sounds to Israelis—whether or not it is intended as such—like contempt for their willingness to compromise and a message that not even their most basic rights are safe.
In a better world, the Israeli reaction would lead the administration to ask: is pushing Jews out of Jerusalem really an American interest, and is it consistent with American values? For how long do the Palestinians—who have flatly rejected every peace offer since 1937 and have refused even to negotiate with Israel since Obama has been in office—deserve such consideration? Is the pressure by the larger Muslim world to downgrade the Jewish connection to Jerusalem something the United States should submit to?