Passing Comment by Clinton Sheds Light on Earlier U.S.-Israel Settlement Dispute

December 6, 2012 - 5:19 AM

clinton jerusalem

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, standing alongside her Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman, looks out over Jerusalem during a September 2010 visit. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(CNSNews.com) – Amid a new controversy between Israel and the Obama administration over the issue of building in disputed territory, a largely-unnoticed comment by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offers fresh insight into an earlier dispute.

After presenting a speech at the Saban Forum on U.S.-Israel relations on Friday evening, Clinton, during a question-and-answer time, referred to a temporary freeze on settlement construction, which Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – under U.S. pressure – had declared in October 2009.

“When Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month settlement freeze,” she said, “it wasn’t perfect: It didn’t cover East Jerusalem, but it covered much of the contested area in the West Bank.”

Clinton’s remark that the announced freeze “didn’t cover East Jerusalem” is noteworthy.

Netanyahu made it clear from the outset that Jerusalem was excluded, saying during the press conference at which the freeze was first declared that “We do not put any restrictions on building in our sovereign capital.” He repeated the position numerous times in the following months.

Yet when a dispute erupted the following spring over zoning plans for new homes in Jerusalem, the Obama administration suggested that the move was a violation of the freeze agreement, recalls Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel.

“For the first time ever, Clinton [on Friday] publicly and explicitly acknowledged that the freeze did not cover East Jerusalem,” Rubin wrote in an article Wednesday.

“Why, then, did Vice President Joe Biden throw a temper tantrum when an Israeli zoning board cleared some future construction there?” he asked. “At the time, the U.S. government repeatedly implied that Israel violated the agreement, which it didn’t. Now Clinton admits that.”

In her Saban Forum remarks Clinton went on to recount how she had been criticized from various quarters for saying at the time the moratorium was announced that it was an “unprecedented” decision by an Israeli prime minister.

“But the fact was it was a 10-month settlement freeze. And he was good to his word,” she added.

During a visit to Israel by Biden in March 2010 a bureaucratic body announced plans for 1,600 new homes in a part of northern Jerusalem claimed by the Palestinians, triggering what one Israeli diplomat described as the most serious U.S.-Israel rift in decades.

Biden twice during his visit condemned the decision, as did Clinton in a 45-minute phone conversation with Netanyahu. Israeli ambassador Michael Oren was summoned to the State Department to hear a protest from then Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.

Clinton in media interviews said the announcement was “insulting” – both because of the timing and also “the substance” – and Obama adviser David Axelrod called it an “affront” and “destructive.”

Netanyahu apologized several times for the fact that the announcement – made by a ministry controlled by an ultra-Orthodox coalition partner – occurred during Biden’s visit. But he resisted demands to annul it.

Netanyahu had not included Jerusalem in the freeze in the first place because, like his predecessors on both the right and left, he rejects the argument that any part of Israel’s capital is a “settlement” – a stance he made clear to the administration months before the moratorium was announced, and reiterated during an address to an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington days after the Biden visit.

“The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 year ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today,” he told the gathering on March 23, 2010. “Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital.”

In her speech to the same AIPAC conference, Clinton said “new construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank” undermines trust between Israelis and Palestinians and “undermines America’s unique ability to play a role – an essential role – in the peace process.”

The international community considers eastern parts of Jerusalem, including areas which Israel captured from Jordanian forces in 1967, to be “occupied Palestinian territory.”

The Palestinian Authority wants to establish the capital of an envisaged independent state in the city.

The latest spat over settlements follows Israel’s announcement that it plans to build 3,000 new homes in as area known as East 1 (E1) – a state-owned, uninhabited piece of rocky terrain located between eastern Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, an established city of around 40,000 in the disputed West Bank.

Israeli leaders since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin have supported the E1 project in principle since the mi-1990s. Netanyahu’s announcement, made in the aftermath of the vote in New York upgrading the P.A.’s status at the U.N., constituted permission for zoning and planning, not for building to begin, and actual construction remains years away.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said this week the area was “particularly sensitive and construction there would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution.”