East Jerusalem and Netanyahu's crass disregard for norms | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 27, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 27, 2010

East Jerusalem and Netanyahu's crass disregard for norms

US' preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan has, to some extent, stood in the way of the administration of President Obama from focusing fully on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In fact, there have been no Palestine-Israel talks for more than a year. Although President Obama appointed former Senator George Mitchell as his Middle East Envoy to carry forward US initiated peace negotiations, there has not been progress through his efforts even after the Senator visited the region and talked with all conflicting groups, except Hammas. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu has also not shown much interest towards peace either.
No one, of course, expected Netanyahu to be interested in peace initiative and he has not disappointed his admirers. It has, however, been a disappointment that the US that has the maximum leverage on the Israeli Government has not shown more enthusiasm than it has to nudge the government of Netanyahu from its complacency. In fact, Netanyahu has been so complacent that his Government announced on March 12th plans to build 1600 new settlements in East Jerusalem right when Vice President Joe Biden was on a visit to Israel to restart the proximity talks for resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is considered by the United States both a provocation and an embarrassment timed deliberately by Israel to derail US efforts to start proximity talks on resolution of Israel-Palestine conflict.
East Jerusalem was annexed by the Israelis after the 1967 war. It is outside the legal competence of the Government of Israel to build any new settlement there. Further, the Palestinians who had control over East Jerusalem till Israel occupied it want this part of Jerusalem to be the capital of the independent state of Palestine. The Israelis of course claim the entire Jerusalem as the capital of their country. The intention of the Palestinians as well as the fact that this land was forcibly taken away from them and occupied through war does not bother the Israelis at all.
The US raised serious objection to the decision of Israel to build the settlements in East Jerusalem. Not only did it come during Biden's Israel visit, it also came before Hillary Clinton went to Moscow for an international meeting on Middle East and bilateral meetings with Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. In Moscow, the US, the UN, the EU and Russia issued a joint statement condemning the Israeli decision. In the statement, the four powers known as the quartet said that they would be closely monitoring the situation in Israel over its government's decision in East Jerusalem and added that they would also consider taking additional steps to address the situation.
The decision to build the settlements drew flak within Israel. The Kadima party, known for its moderate views, called it “a new record for diplomatic stupidity”. Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the move “unwarranted”. These criticisms notwithstanding, Netanyahu went ahead and asserted that every Government in Israel reserves the right over East Jerusalem because the entire Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel.
Hillary Clinton did not retain her anger for long. After a telephone conversation with the Israeli Prime Minister upon returning from Moscow, she said her discussions with him were “useful”. She, however, did not divulge the contents of her conversation or what made her conclude it was “useful”. It is also surprising why she was so upbeat after expressing such anger at the Israeli decision before. It also did not clearly explain the anger that the US had expressed when the announcement was made. Biden who was the immediate recipient of Israel's provocative and embarrassing decision in a written statement, said: “the substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of the proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.”
There was also a sideshow to the row between the US and Israel over the settlement issue. The brother of Netanyahu's wife, by calling Obama an anti-Semite, added spice to the brew that Israel cooked for the US at a time when it was preparing to launch the proximity talks. Although the Prime Minister quickly distanced himself from his brother-in-law and called his views that of an extremist Jew, it nevertheless left a bad taste in the mouth, particularly because apart from talking over the phone the Israeli prime Minister did precious little. The Palestinians were naturally as angry as they could be and called upon the US to respond to this provocation with “effective measures”.
However, the latest act by Israel was neither accidental nor coincidental. The Israeli Prime Minister told Biden that he “is a true friend of Israel” and the declaration was in no way meant to embarrass him. However, a Jerusalem City Council member spilled the beans. The member said that the timing was deliberate. The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs of Israel, Eli Yishai, who made the announcement, chose to do so to derail Netanyahu's recent move to start peace negotiations with Palestine. The City Council member said that “the fact that Yishai can't wait a few more days till Biden leaves proves that his goal was to give the American administration a slap in the face.”
One reason why Clinton was so easily led to term his conversation with Netanyahu as “useful” where the latter made no amends for offending the United States could be the visit of the Israeli Prime Minister. Even on the eve of going on this visit, Netanyahu has reiterated that “building in East Jerusalem is like building in Tel Aviv”. Netanyahu's continued intransigence has left analysts wondering what Clinton found in her conversation with the Israeli prime Minister “useful”. It also underscores the fact that when it comes to Israel, they are a power unto themselves. Even the world's only remaining super power is virtually powerless before the power of the Israeli lobbies in the US that largely supports the hard-line stance of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. The latest action of Israel not only highlights this reality, it also exposes the utterly disadvantaged position of the Palestinians. Even with the righteousness of its cause, with scores of UN resolutions and international law behind it the United States, with Obama at the helm, cannot find the strength and resolve to do the right thing in Palestine. President Shimon Peres who has influence over the conservative Netanyahu is trying to diffuse the current impasse but Netanyahu is also under pressure from the extremists in his government to go ahead with the construction in East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the Palestinian peace initiative stands suspended.
The author is former Ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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