Telling Israel 'no': Obama's bold move



It’s a risky move that has already provoked a sharp rebuke from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it is hard to see how the peace process could move forward if Washington had remained silent.

Obama picked a small but symbolic issue, a 20-unit housing project on the site of the former Shepherd Hotel, sparking a full-blown diplomatic standoff. Just days after the US objected to the project, the European Union, Russia and France did the same.
This gambit puts the settlement issue at the centre of the table, even before the
next round of Arab-Israeli negotiations starts — if it ever does. The downside is that it
might only serve to harden Israel’s stance, without softening Arab positions.

The stalemate in West Asia needs a new approach. By opening the most sensitive dossier first, Obama has delivered to Israel its first dose of tough love since the administration of President George H W Bush.

There can be no so-called two-state solution that doesn’t take into account the famous ‘facts on the ground’, created by Israel over international objections. At issue is the fate of about 3,00,000 Israeli settlers now living in the West Bank, and 1,90,000 in East Jerusalem.

Neither the US nor the rest of the world has ever recognised Israel’s claim to the territories — including East Jerusalem, which is mostly Arab — that it captured after its victory in the 1967 West Asia war. By international standards, that makes housing projects for Jewish residents in those areas ‘settlements.’
The Shepherd Hotel site is a case in point. The most important fact about this particular project is that the building permit was granted July 2, just weeks after the Obama administration first signalled that it would object to any new building in the captured territories.

Israel’s timing couldn’t be more provocative. Giving the green light to the project now, after years of delays, may be part of a larger plan to Balkanize East Jerusalem, splitting neighbourhoods in such a way that a future political solution for the city becomes impossible.

Or it might have been intended as a signal that Israel would continue to build as Israel saw fit, no matter what Washington said.

Either way, it is ‘unhelpful’, as Condoleezza Rice said as secretary of state in 2005 about other unilateral steps taken by Israel in East Jerusalem. That was her polite, and not very effective, way of telling Israel to hold off.

The Obama administration’s call for a freeze on new settlement construction has been unambiguous. The US “wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on May 27. She could have added “not in East Jerusalem,” which was the point of a message about the Shepherd Hotel project delivered this month to the new Israeli ambassador to the US.

Obama, as a candidate, promised to support Jerusalem’s status as the undivided capital of Israel. What the boundaries of the city will end up being depends on negotiations.
The Israeli government has tried to change the issue: Dan Meridor, an Israeli government minister, accused the Obama administration of breaking with an agreement made in 2004 with President George W Bush.

But the Israelis themselves have ‘not fully’ lived up to that agreement, in the words of Elliot Abrams, a National Security Council adviser in the second Bush administration.
Obama is signalling that there can be no deal as long as Israel tries to get away with creating more “facts on the ground.” Breaking the stalemate requires inflicting some pain, he has determined, even if it means hurting the US’ best ally in West Asia.

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