I’ve never understood why the world goes absolutely bonkers when Jews try to build homes in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Take the latest brouhaha about the announcement by Israel’s Interior Ministry that it had approved a planning stage — the fourth out of seven required — for the eventual construction of 1,600 units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.
Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority, is not known for being too accommodating during negotiations. And yet, when negotiating a two-state solution two years ago with Ehud Olmert, Abbas agreed that several neighborhoods in Jerusalem would stay in Israeli hands in any final settlement. And guess which neighborhood was on that list?
That’s right — Ramat Shlomo, a neighborhood made up mostly of religious Jews with big families and a shortage of housing. Abbas was surely aware that, as analyst Evelyn Gordon wrote March 14 in a Commentary blog post, “Its location in no way precludes the division of Jerusalem, which is what both Washington and Europe claim to want: Situated in the corner formed by two other huge neighborhoods to its west and south, it [Ramat Shlomo] does not block a single Arab neighborhood from contiguity with a future Palestinian state.”
Nevertheless, Israel was crucified when its Interior Ministry made the Ramat Shlomo announcement last week during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel — presumably because the timing was highly embarrassing. But really, what timing would have been more appropriate? An announcement two weeks later, when Israel would have been accused of being sneaky and deceitful during Biden’s visit?
After all, Israel had nothing to hide: It was in strict compliance with the 10-month settlement freeze, which specifically excluded East Jerusalem and which the Obama administration fully supported and even characterized as “unprecedented.”
In any case, Vice President Biden made a rare public condemnation of Israel’s announcement, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded with an explanation and a rare public apology that Biden accepted. Normally, that is more than enough contrition to resolve misunderstandings.
But not in this case. The following day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton berated Netanyahu on the phone for close to 45 minutes and followed that with public condemnation and demands for more Israeli concessions.
Ambassador Michael Oren has reportedly called this the biggest crisis between the United States and Israel since 1975. And why all this madness? Because Israel had this crazy idea to allow a zoning permit for housing units in a Jewish neighborhood of its capital city.
One wonders: What would have happened if Israel had done something really bad while Biden was in Israel? Like, say, announce a zoning permit for construction of a national memorial to a terrorist?
Well, it turns out that while the Obama administration was heaping abuse on Israel, the Palestinians were in fact dedicating a memorial to the mastermind of the worse terrorist attack in Israeli history. Now tell me, which act does more to undermine trust and the atmosphere for peace: a zoning permit for apartments or a memorial to terrorism?
The funny thing is, no administration official ever mentioned the terrorist memorial. As Barry Rubin, professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, reminds us: “Even though the Palestinian Authority has refused to negotiate for 14 months; made President Obama look very foolish after destroying his publicly announced September plan to have negotiations in two months; broke its promise not to sponsor the Goldstone report in the U.N.; and rejected direct negotiations after months of pleading by the Obama White House, not a single word of criticism has ever been offered by any administration official regarding the P.A.’s continuous and very public sabotage of peace- process efforts.”
Obama’s single-minded condemnations of Israel have done more than push Israel away; they’ve also emboldened the Palestinians to dig in their heels and pushed them even further away from peace talks of any kind.
My friend Yossi Klein Halevi, an author and political analyst who lives in Jerusalem, has a “strong sense that Obama was looking for a pretext. He’s turned an incident into a crisis.”
He adds: “If Obama thinks he’s going to win friends in the Israeli public by treating Israel more harshly than any other country aside from Iran, he’s going to have an even tougher learning curve than he’s had in this last year of failed Middle East diplomacy.”
According to Noah Pollak of Commentary, Obama’s priority is to stop Israel from attacking Iran: “Obama’s only option for restraining an Israeli attack is the one that we’re seeing unfold before our eyes: a U.S. effort to methodically weaken the relationship; provoke crises; consume the Netanyahu government with managing this deterioration; and most important, create an ambience of unpredictability by making the Israelis fear that an attack on Iran would not just be met with American disapproval but also a veto and perhaps active resistance.”
If Pollak is correct, then, the Ramat Shlomo crisis has clarified the stakes: The issue of Iran trumps everything.
Israelis understand that, compared to the threat of a nuclear Iran, an issue like building permits in Ramat Shlomo is a farce. By tormenting the Jews over such an issue, Obama is not just emboldening Israel’s enemies, he’s setting back the very peace process he so cherishes.