‘Jerusalem Is Not a Settlement,’ Netanyahu Reminds Obama Administration
July 20, 2009 - 3:33 AMAn already uneasy relationship between the U.S. and Israeli governments looks set to become significantly more chilly with the Obama administration's decision to challenge Israel's freedom of actions in its own capital.
With the exception of the dovish left wing, Israeli control over Jerusalem now and in the future enjoys support across the Israeli political spectrum; the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) wants the city – or at least the eastern portion – for its future capital.
The State Department late last week called in Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to warn Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government not to permit the building of a 20-apartment building on a piece of privately owned land in Jerusalem.
The incident dominated a weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, and even the statement issued by Netanyahu afterwards – usually a few staid lines on the meeting just completed – revealed the level of surprise about the issue that Washington had chosen to bring up.
It has been the policy of all Israeli governments, Netanyahu said, that “united Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel.”
Israeli sovereignty means, among other things, that residents of Jerusalem can choose where to buy apartments.
“There is no ban on Arabs buying apartments in the western part of the city and there is no ban on Jews buying or building apartments in the eastern part of the city,” he said. “This is the policy of an open city, an undivided city that has no separation according to religion or national affiliation.”
Netanyahu said there would be a huge international outcry if someone proposed that Jews could not live in certain parts of New York, London, Paris or Rome.
“We cannot agree to edicts of this kind in Jerusalem.”
A dispute between the U.S. and its historically close Mideast ally has been brewing for months over the issue of construction work in Jewish towns in disputed territories – “illegal settlements” that Washington contends are an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
But taking issue with a planed apartment building in Jerusalem – on a site near Israeli government offices including its national police headquarters – goes a step further, essentially lining up with the Islamic world’s contention that parts of Israel’s capital constitute “settlements” in “occupied territory.”
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that Netanyahu had told his advisers Sunday that he was surprised at the U.S. demand, as he had made it clear to President Obama when they met in Washington in May that “Jerusalem is not a settlement, and it has nothing to do with discussions on a freeze.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the U.S. demand “odd,” saying he had never heard the U.S. or European Union comment when Arab citizens of Israel build houses in Jerusalem.
Speaking to reporters during a visit to an agricultural research center in New Delhi on Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about the Jerusalem issue in the context of administration’s “very firm position on settlements.”
She replied that negotiations with the Israelis were “intense,” “ongoing” and “extremely focused.”
“When we have something to announce, we will do so,” she said. “But as you know, this is a very high priority for the Obama administration. We are working on it every single day. And we look forward to making progress.”
Asked whether the specific building project in Jerusalem was part of the negotiations, Clinton said she had nothing further to say.
The P.A. welcomed the U.S. shift.
Hatem Abdel-Qader, an advisor to P.A. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and a former P.A. minister for Jerusalem affairs, called the administration’s position “encouraging,” and said it “must be translated into actual pressure on the ground.”
The P.A.’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, accused Netanyahu of continuing to “undermine the efforts to renew the peace process.”
Buoyed by the stance taken by the administration in recent months, the P.A. has refused to return to peace talks unless Israel’s stop settlement activity.
Last week Netanyahu appealed to Abbas to meet him to restart stalled negotiations but the P.A. leader said he would not do so until the Israeli government “recognize[s] the two-state solution and stop[s] all settlement activities in order to resume peace talks over final status issues.”
“Final status” issues are those which the drafters of the U.S.-backed Oslo Accords 16 years ago decided should be deferred until a later date, given their sensitivity.
They include the final borders of an envisaged Palestinian state – including the fate of more than 280,000 Israelis living in 121 communities in areas claimed by the P.A. – the future of Palestinians refugees and their descendants, and the future status of Jerusalem.
On Jerusalem, Likud and Labor governments alike have maintained that its status as Israel’s “undivided and eternal” capital is not up for negotiation.
The property at the center of the row is the site of an old hotel which has been owned by an American businessman since 1985. Before that, it was government property since 1967, when during the Six Day War Israel expelled Jordanian forces from an area they had controlled since 1948.
Prior to 1948 the area was under British administration, by League of Nations mandate, and before that, it fell under Ottoman Turk control.
The P.A. has highlighted the fact that, up until World War II, the property was owned by an Arab religious figure, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who held the Ottoman-created title of Mufti of Jerusalem.
Husseini fled in 1937, fearing imminent arrest by the British for fomenting violence. After he left, the British confiscated the property and used it as a military outpost. Husseini spent some of the war years in Berlin making propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis and voicing support for Hitler's efforts to exterminate Europe's Jews. He never returned to Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem municipality on Sunday issued a statement saying that site of the proposed development had been legally purchased, and that planning decisions were based on the law.
It cited a High Court ruling declaring that Israeli “Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike can purchase land in all parts of the city of Jerusalem.”