Akiva Eldar: Netanyahu senses Obama’s weakness on Jerusalem

By Akiva Eldar, Haaretz – 18 Nov 2009

Akiva Eldar

Akiva Eldar

If there is anything that irks the White House more than news from the American consulate in Jerusalem about new West Bank settlements, it is a newspaper report on a new neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

Thus when U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, on Monday about a new construction project in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood, which is beyond the 1967 lines, Mitchell was hoping to settle the matter quietly.

He knows what happens in Ramallah, Cairo and Amman when a headline indicates a change in the status quo in this city, which evokes greater sensitivities than any other in the Arab-Israeli conflict. So whose interest was served when, a matter of hours after the meeting, news about the project made headlines in Yedioth Ahronoth?

This is not the first time, and in all probability won’t be the last, that Netanyahu has enlisted East Jerusalem in his political battles. Less than six months ago, it was the Shepherd Hotel project in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Now, it is Gilo. And others are certain to follow.

In the case of the Shepherd Hotel, the prime minister contended that it was private property, and therefore, he would not be able to intervene in the planning and construction process even if he wanted to do so. In the case of Gilo, Netanyahu can’t use the same excuse, as the hundreds of new apartments are planned for a site owned by the state’s Israel Lands Administration. But this time, the prime minister is not trying to hide behind excuses. Instead, he is pulling out the doomsday weapon: “United Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel.”

When U.S. President Barack Obama insists on a construction freeze in the West Bank settlement of Ofra, and even refuses to be moved by stories about “natural growth,” Netanyahu ducks for cover. But when a foreign leader, even the leader of the world’s greatest superpower, dares to touch a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem, the prime minister goes on the offensive. Gilo and other Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Green Line have been at the heart of the Israeli consensus for many years. Their residents vote in no small numbers for the Labor Party or parties to Labor’s left.

If to Israelis, “what goes for East Jerusalem goes for Tel Aviv,” as Netanyahu says, then as far as the Palestinians are concerned, “what goes for East Jerusalem goes for Ramallah,” as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says. A freeze on Jewish construction in East Jerusalem therefore was and remains the key to the peace process.

During his last term as prime minister, Netanyahu rebuffed Arab protests over the building of Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood, east of Gilo, as well as American requests to delay the project. He learned that in the battle over Jerusalem, he could even overpower a successful president like Bill Clinton. Today, he senses Obama’s weakness – so he is inviting the U.S. president for another round.

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