This week’s U.S.-Israel diplomatic dustup over building additional Jewish housing in east Jerusalem may have as much to do with domestic politics in the Jewish state — and a desire to mobilize American Jews to oppose additional U.S. pressure — as with any shift in Obama administration policy.
Publicly raising its disagreement over Jerusalem may “focus the American Jewish community, which is mostly opposed to settlements, on the fact that when the U.S. demands Israel cease building settlements that includes Jerusalem,” said Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman.
And touching the Jerusalem nerve may help galvanize Evangelical Christians, many of whom have a growing commitment to preserving Jerusalem as Israel’s unified capital, to oppose new administration peace pushes.
Concern about U.S. pressure on Jerusalem was a sub-theme at this week’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI) conference in Washington, which has become one of the nation’s biggest pro-Israel gatherings.
Some observers argue that the crisis was manufactured by an Israeli government that finds itself in a difficult position in the face of U.S. pressure to end the building of settlements.
A former Israeli diplomat said that the newest front in the intensifying skirmishes between the two new governments — which came after strong and public American opposition to the construction of 20 new apartments in an east Jerusalem neighborhood — was “manufactured clumsily and emanates from a profound misunderstanding of 2009 America and Obama’s resolve.”
That’s a mistake, the former diplomat said, because playing the Jerusalem card when U.S. policy on the issue has not fundamentally changed could “prevent Israel from influencing the [Middle East peace] plan that will become policy at this point.”
But some Jewish leaders insist there has been a change in U.S. policy as well as in administration officials’ willingness to speak loudly about an issue that in the past was handled quietly, sometimes with winks and nods.
Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, called the U.S. pressure on Israel’s Jerusalem building “racist” and said it represents an “absolute change” in policy.
“[President Barack] Obama and his advisers feel that because [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] caved in to [U.S.] demands that he accept a conditional Palestinian state, he will bend, and they’ll be able to start moving toward their ultimate goal of east Jerusalem coming under the control of the Palestinians,” Klein said. “They missed the fact that there is a strong consensus that Netanyahu can’t accede to this pressure because his government would collapse. They miscalculated because he had surprised them by conceding so quickly on other issues.”
While many Jewish leaders were worried but restrained, Klein used unusually strong language.
“Obama is saying [building in east Jerusalem] will change the demographic balance of the area,” he said. “That’s the argument racists used about blacks in America.”
Others rejected the claim that the administration is carving out new policy.
“They haven’t done anything different in terms of Jerusalem policy,” said Judith Kipper, director of Middle East programs at the Institute of World Affairs. “They won’t move the embassy there. The idea all along has been that the city has to be shared.”
Kipper said Netanyahu’s tough positions on Jerusalem construction may be “testing the waters” for a possible U.S.-Israel deal on West Bank settlements that would produce something less than a total, permanent settlement freeze — a deal she said would be “hard for the administration to buy into.”
Despite clear signals of unhappiness in Washington, she said the prime minister’s gambit could succeed.
“There won’t be real consequences,” she said. “The U.S. isn’t going to stop the flow of arms or money; they’re not going to denounce him. So maybe he can live with the resulting strains.”
The newest diplomatic flare-up came late last week when Israel’s new ambassador in Washington, American-born historian Michael Oren, was at the State Department for a getting-acquainted meeting.
At that session Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew told Oren that Washington strongly opposes the construction of new apartments in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, a project initiated by Irving Moskowitz, a wealthy American advocate and financier of Jewish residential projects in east Jerusalem.
The U.S. objection prompted a strong statement from Netanyahu, who said at a Sunday cabinet meeting,
“I would like to re-emphasize that the united Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel. Our sovereignty over it cannot be challenged; this means — inter alia — that residents of Jerusalem may purchase apartments in all parts of the city.”
He said his government “cannot accept the idea that Jews will not have the right to live and purchase in all parts of Jerusalem … This has been the policy of Israeli governments over the years, and it is also the policy of our government.”
Netanyahu also asserted that “there is no ban on Arabs buying apartments in the western part of the city, and there is no ban on Jews buying or building apartments in the eastern part of the city.”
Americans for Peace Now disputed the claim, citing Israeli human rights lawyer Daniel Seidemann who maintains that “virtually all of west Jerusalem is off-limits to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem in terms of their ability to purchase property.”
Unlike most recent Netanyahu statements, this one was released in English, suggesting the prime minister had the U.S. administration and American Jews in his rhetorical crosshairs.
On Monday a State Department spokesman denied that U.S. opposition to the new housing project represented a shift in policy.
“This is not a new issue,” said spokesman Philip Crowley. “We have made our views … known to Israel. Our views are not new either, that this kind of construction should be subject to permanent-status negotiations, and that we are concerned that unilateral actions taken by the Israelis or the Palestinians cannot prejudge the outcome of these negotiations.”
Some Jewish leaders agree that U.S. complaints about east Jerusalem building projects aren’t new — but expect that Obama will actually follow through, whereas his predecessors have generally not gone beyond mild wrist-slapping.
“It’s not a departure, policy-wise,” said the ADL’s Foxman. “But it sounds tougher. And Israel knows that when this administration talks about settlements, it’s talking about Jerusalem.”
He added that “what troubles many in the Jewish community isn’t that the U.S. is raising the issue of settlements, but that it looks like Washington is negotiating with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians — and that part of that involves the central issue of Jerusalem. So in a way, it looks like the U.S. is basically predetermining final-status issues in those negotiations.”
Others see Israeli domestic politics at work in the leaks about Oren’s State Department meeting and the prime minister’s strongly worded statements.
“Bibi was making some moves to compromise on settlements, reacting to pressure from the Obama administration,” said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv. “That upset some of his key constituencies. When you had this opportunity from Moskowitz to open up new units in east Jerusalem, it was made-to-order for him to play the Jerusalem card.”
Past administrations have “let the issue slide so many times that Netanyahu probably thinks he can let this one go, too, without too much damage to U.S.-Israel relations,” Walker said. “He undoubtedly has the support of the Israeli public on this. And, in fact, I don’t know how much President Obama can do about it. When you start talking about Jerusalem, you run into big problems here and in Israel.”
Raising the stakes on Jerusalem could also be a way of mobilizing an American Jewish community with far less emotional attachment to West Bank settlements — but a much bigger one to a unified Jerusalem under Israeli control.
Still other analysts see policy motives on this side of the Jerusalem-Washington axis.
“The administration wants very much to show light between Israel and America in front of the Arab world,” said the president of a major pro-Israel group who asked not to be identified. “Part of what we’re seeing on Jerusalem is for public consumption in the Arab world, to help build support for administration plans in the region.”