U.S. Row Shows Jerusalem Is Cornerstone of Peace

Obama must pull out his plan for two states with Jerusalem as their capital before it's too late.

Benjamin Netanyahu is absolutely right. Since 1967 no Israeli government stopped building in Jerusalem, east or west. Since the Eshkol government extended Israeli sovereignty over "Jordanian Jerusalem" and annexed the villages around the city, "United Jerusalem" became an inalienable part of the State of Israel. The prime minister is entitled to order the interior minister to delay the discussions at the Planning and Building Committee on the plans to expand a Jewish neighborhood beyond the Green Line. He can ask the mayor to delay presenting his ideas for changes at the Holy Basin. No Zionist prime minister will dare utter the words "I commit to freezing construction in Jerusalem."

Mahmoud Abbas is also absolutely right. Since 1967 no country has recognized the annexation of East Jerusalem to the State of Israel. Moreover, west and east Jerusalem do not host a single embassy. Even George W. Bush, considered a fervent Zionist, made sure every six months to sign a deferment to the 1995 legislation on moving the U.S. embassy to Israel's capital. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, there is no difference between authorizing a plan to build hundreds of homes at Ramat Shlomo and setting up a new outpost near Ofra. Broadening the Israeli presence in the King's Garden, at the foot of the Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount), harms them much more than setting up a new industrial area near Ariel (which is also taking place under the guise of a "freeze.")

Barack Obama is also right. The U.S. mediator expected that in the coming months Netanyahu would avoid altering the status quo in the territories, whose future is part of the negotiations. In Washington they realized that Netanyahu can't publicly declare a construction freeze in East Jerusalem. All they asked of Israel was not to declare publicly the expansion of construction there. Unfortunately, the Americans had hoped that Israel would not surprise them by announcing a new plan during the vice president's visit on the eve of the proximity talks.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is justifiably thrilled. Jerusalem is the preferred arena for Iran and its regional allies to clash with the United States and its Mideast allies. Tehran could not have had a better venue or more perfect timing to expose the international community's failings. When the leaders of the Arab states meet in Tripoli, the ayatollahs will closely watch the maneuvering of the Arab League's leaders over the proposal to ratify their peace initiative, at a standstill since 2002.

Based on experience, Netanyahu can expect the issue of construction at Ramat Shlomo to die down, just as the issue of deadly car crashes dwindles with time. A day or two will pass and life (or death) goes back to normal. Washington's politicians are concerned about the congressional elections that will take place in less than eight months. The election year is an open season for the pro-Israel lobby, whose influence on both parties, including Obama's, is great. "United Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people" was always the Judgment Day weapon of the Israeli and Jewish right during its assaults on Capitol Hill.

The story of Ramat Shlomo reminds all those who truly love Jerusalem that this tough city is the cornerstone of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and between the city and the three monotheistic religions who believe that it is holy. The current crisis over the violation of the status quo in East Jerusalem underlines the risk inherent in the proposal to postpone a solution on sovereignty over this tinderbox until the end of final-status talks. As long as this powder keg remains open, some extremist and/or fool, Mayor Nir Barkat and/or the Islamic Movement's Sheikh Raed Salah will light a match.

Jerusalem will burn. If it doesn't happen tomorrow, then the day after. The crisis over the construction freeze is a last-minute cry of distress. There is no more room for proximity talks and more trips by presidential envoys, whatever their rank. This is the time for the leader of the greatest superpower to pull out the Obama plan for two states with Jerusalem as their capital.