Where East Jerusalem Doesn’t Matter

[tweetmeme] Despite all of the pressure and rhetoric heaped on Israel this past week (fallout from the Biden gaff included a harsh phone call from Clinton, tough words from Patraeus and a rough trip to the White House while England kicked out the head of the Mossad in England and Mauritania completely severed ties with Israel), Netanyahu remained defiant about Israel’s ‘right’ to build in occupied East Jerusalem.  Israel is the only country in the world that considers East Jerusalem part of Israel and not occupied land (though it apparently has support from the New York Times and NPR).  Importantly, the US is raising its voice about the continuing Jewish settlements in Palestine.

But while most of the pressure on Israel has been focused on East Jerusalem, perhaps it is time to look elsewhere as well – specifically Gaza and the West Bank settlements surrounding East Jerusalem. Yesterday, two Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza in the deadliest day of fighting since the end of operation Cast Lead last year.  Importantly, Hamas took credit for the fighting on the Israeli border, breaking a 14 month trend of relative peace by the Islamic group; over the past year, all attacks from Gaza had been by small extremist splinter groups.

There are now reports of Israeli helicopters in Gaza as well as tanks and fire from Israeli ships along the coast. The last thing Israel, Hamas or the US needs right now is another Cast Lead (though Israel has apparently withdrawn).  Israel would likely see increased criticism, the US would see the opportunity for peace evaporate and Hamas would be further exiled from future peace talks.  Indeed, Israel is still under pressure because of its actions in the last Gaza offensive – Amnesty International has recently voiced anger that the UN accepted compensation for buildings destroyed by Israel without guaranteeing rights for Gazans.  Despite the violence, the illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza and its disastrous effects remain a serious problem for Israel as it is very clear evidence of a breach of international law – one that arguably radicalizes Gazans.

Although the international standing of Israel is damaged a little more each day because of Gaza, most politicians are focused on East Jerusalem.  Gideon Lichfield thinks the best, most effective pressure on Israel is not in East Jerusalem, but in the surrounding areas.  Lichfield argues that the continued construction in East Jerusalem is protected by the “everyone knows fallacy,” that protests about East Jerusalem construction are all political because “everyone knows” that it, along with the largest settlements scattered through the West Bank, will always remain with Israel.

Although Lichfield seems to have unfortunately accepted the “everyone knows” argument, he points out that pressure would be more effective elsewhere – though I would add that while pressure should not be limited to East Jerusalem settlements, the international community and particularly the US should not accept the illegal annexation of the future Palestinian capital.

But mainly it’s because it [calls for a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem] distracts attention from some things that matter more — and where Netanyahu is also on weaker ground.

One of those things is what Israel is up to in the undeveloped areas around Jerusalem that are not yet everybody-knows land. The zone known as E1, a stubbly and largely empty (save for a few Palestinian homes) row of hillsides, is slated to be filled with Israeli housing to create a continuous swathe of urbanity between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim, a large settlement that juts deep into the West Bank. It would complete the isolation of Arab East Jerusalem. So far the only finished building there is, of all things, a police station. And, according to a recent investigation by an Israeli newspaper, it was mainly paid for not by public funds, as you would expect a police station to be, but by private money from a right-wing settler organization. This raises interesting and disturbing questions about who pulls the strings in Israel, which the Americans really should ask Mr. Netanyahu.

Lichfield goes on to remind readers that there is significant support in Israel and within the Knesset for the passage of bills that would reward settlers who move back into Israel proper. Very little has changed because of the recent spat between Israel and the US – Netanyahu even decidedly pointed out that he considered Jerusalem “not a settlement” but rather part of Israel while still in the US.

On a more basic level, the arguments that have made over the last several weeks have given reason for Americans to question the Israeli policies and the American support for them.  If this slight shift in public opinion has given Obama more room to maneuver and to put pressure on Israel, he should choose wisely.

Israel does not need help bringing its East Jerusalem settlement policies into the limelight, as international anger is high on this issue already.  If Obama wants to pressure Israel on real concessions it should aim at what Lichfield calls the soft underbelly of Israel and disallow Israel to whitewash its destructive policies outside of East Jerusalem.

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