(CNSNews.com) – “Jerusalem is not a settlement,” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told thousands of pro-Israeli activists in Washington on Monday evening, hours after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the same audience that construction in the city undermines the ability of the U.S. to play “an essential role” in Mideast peace efforts.
Netanyahu’s five-word declaration has become something of a defining statement in relations between his government and the Obama administration, which have been strained since last July over Israel’s right to build in its national capital.
Addressing an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention a day before he is scheduled to meet with President Obama, Netanyahu said the deep connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel and Jerusalem could not be denied. He called “the attempt by many to describe the Jews as foreign colonialists in their own homeland … one of the great lies of modern times.”
“The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 year ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital,” he said, to sustained applause.
Netanyahu, under U.S. pressure, agreed last October to a 10-month freeze in construction work at Israeli settlements in the disputed West Bank.
There are more than 100 settlements – towns of varying population, from several hundred to more than 40,000, built after Israel seized the area historically known as Judea-Samaria from Jordanian control in 1967.
Israel does not categorize any part of Jerusalem as a settlement, although the international community does.
The status of the city – left divided between Israeli and Jordanian control by a 1948 war, reunited under Israel in 1967 – is in dispute because the Palestinians want at least some of Jerusalem, including the area of greatest religious significance, as the capital of an envisaged independent state.
Israeli control over a unified Jerusalem enjoys support across most of the Israeli political spectrum, and the city’s neighborhoods have grown under governments on the left and right.
It is a position well known by U.S. politicians. Two years ago, the then presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Obama, told the AIPAC convention, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”
(Under fire from Palestinians for the remark, Obama appeared to backtrack the following day, telling CNN, “Well, obviously, it’s going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues, and Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations.”)
Last July, the Obama State Department called in Israel’s ambassador to warn against a plan to allow the building of a 20-apartment building on a piece of privately owned land in Jerusalem. Netanyahu responded at the time that Israeli sovereignty meant residents of Jerusalem could choose where to buy apartments. He said “edicts” about where Jews could live were unacceptable.
After a brief spat the issue quieted down, but it flared again this month when a planning body announced – during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden and shortly before U.S.-mediated indirect Israel-Palestinian talks were set to begin – plans for 1,600 new homes in the city’s north-east.
The announcement brought a barrage of U.S. condemnation, from Biden, Clinton and other administration officials, which in turn prompted expressions of concern from lawmakers and pro-Israel organizations. The Palestinian Authority (P.A.) said the indirect “proximity” talks were off.
The dispute eased after Netanyahu agreed to several concessions in a bid to lure P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas to the talks. They did not, however, include a reversal of the planned housing project.
In her AIPAC address earlier Monday, Clinton said the administration objected to the housing announcement because it was devoted to the goal of “two states for two peoples, secure and at peace.”
“New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines that mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides say want and need,” she said.
“It undermines America’s unique ability to play a role – an essential role – in the peace process. Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don’t agree, to say so, and say so unequivocally.”
‘Israel’s enemies are America’s enemies’
Netanyahu in his later remarks did not refer directly to the recent dispute, but spoke warmly about the enduring friendship of the United States and the American people.
“From one president to the next, from one Congress to the next, America’s commitment to Israel's security has been unwavering.”
He also indirectly challenged the view in some quarters that the friendship is a one-way street, with Israel taking U.S. support and giving little back, while hampering U.S. interests elsewhere in the region because of a failure to reach a settlement with the Palestinians.
“Israel has been a staunch and steadfast ally of the United States,” Netanyahu said. “For decades, Israel served as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism. Today it is helping America stem the tide of militant Islam.”
“Militant Islam does not hate the West because of Israel. It hates Israel because of the West -- because it sees Israel as an outpost of freedom and democracy that prevents them from overrunning the Middle East. That is why when Israel stands against its enemies, it stands against America’s enemies.”