Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his senior partner Ehud Barak returned from Washington yesterday, leaving behind a deep crisis with the world's most powerful country and Israel's greatest friend. U.S. President Barack Obama asked that Netanyahu give him unequivocal answers to his administration's demands, in order to begin indirect talks and advance the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The demands, which last week received the support of the Quartet of Mideast mediators, include a complete freeze on settlement construction, including in East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu went to the White House several hours after an announcement was made that building permits had been awarded for Jewish construction in the Shepherd Hotel complex in Sheikh Jarrah. Instead of lowering his tone, the prime minister declared during the annual conference of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC that his government would continue building in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu points to previous governments that built Jewish neighborhoods beyond the Green Line that divides the city. But Netanyahu himself has recognized that advancing the political process and relations with neighboring Arab states, especially Egypt and Jordan, requires that Israel show greater sensitivity to anything that alters the status quo in East Jerusalem.
Contrary to Netanyahu's claim that he is not authorized to stop construction in East Jerusalem, in July 1997, during his previous term as prime minister, he ordered that Jewish residents be removed from the heart of Ras al-Amud. Netanyahu, who at the time was under pressure from Bill Clinton, explained that his decision served "the unity of Jerusalem, the unity of the nation and the continuation of the peace process." Netanyahu relied on the legal opinion of his attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, who said that it was possible to prevent homes from being populated and even for homes to be evacuated to prevent disturbances that endanger public security.
Conferences held by the right wing and American Jews greatly applaud Netanyahu's old-new slogan about the fate of Jerusalem being equal to the fate of Tel Aviv. But we can expect Israeli elected officials, certainly an experienced politician like the prime minister, to recognize that Jerusalem is different from Israel's other cities and other world's capitals. The United States and the whole international community have never recognized the annexation of the Old City and the Arab villages around Jerusalem. Israel itself has agreed that East Jerusalem and its borders will be determined in discussions on the final settlement. Establishing new facts on the ground does not jibe with fair negotiations and the need to bolster pragmatic Palestinians as partners to a future settlement.
The choice here is between continued construction in East Jerusalem during the negotiations and Israel's future as a secure, democratic and Jewish state. A deterioration in relations with the U.S. administration is taking place at the peak of international efforts to block Iran and strengthen the axis of moderate Arab states. In the unnecessary fight with the United States, an essential ally for Israel, the Netanyahu government is showing itself to be the most extremist and dangerous in the country's history.
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