More than a month has passed since the crisis erupted over the expansion of the Jewish East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit here, and the peace process is still at a total standstill.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the U.S. administration's demand that Israeli construction be frozen in East Jerusalem and was thrust into an unnecessary and damaging confrontation with Israel's most important ally. Indirect talks with the Palestinians have been delayed and the freeze that Israel declared on residential construction in West Bank settlements will soon expire.
The Americans are hinting that if the diplomatic stalemate continues, they will release their own peace plan, which Netanyahu views as a recipe for an imposed agreement. The Israeli public is mostly apathetic to the peace process. As long as there is no terrorism and no intifada, only a small number of Israelis take any interest in the plight of the Palestinians or what is being done in the territories.
This apathy relieves Netanyahu of domestic pressures and gives him freedom to act. The prime minister, however, prefers to bide his time, apparently in the hope that U.S. President Barack Obama will soften his demands or that Israel's supporters in the United States will organize opposition to an imposed peace agreement.
Netanyahu's conduct reveals his true position. The expansion of the Jewish footprint in East Jerusalem is more important to him than safeguarding our essential relationship with the United States. He prefers to approve construction in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and quarrel with Obama than foster closer coordination and understanding with Washington in the face of the Iranian threat.
At the moment of truth, Netanyahu opted to go with his ideological roots and sacrifice Israel's strategic interests - and his commitment to advance a peace settlement with the Palestinians on the basis of "two states for two peoples."
Netanyahu's priorities are a mistake, but one that is not too late to rectify. He should respond positively to the American request and temporarily halt construction in East Jerusalem to quickly restart talks with the Palestinians. The future of East Jerusalem must be decided through negotiations, as Israel committed to in the past, and not through unilateral decisions.
Israel gains nothing from Netanyahu's time-wasting and is only suffering as a result of the prolonging of the conflict and the undermining of American support. Instead of entrenching himself behind his political partners, the prime minister needs to show courage to break the diplomatic stalemate after more than a year in office with little to show for it.
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