Sunday, May 26, 2024

Obama Again Challenges Israel’s Rights in Yerushalayim

President Obama is once again challenging Israel's rightful claim to Yerushalayim, and criticizing any effort to build new housing that would allow Jews to live there. Now that he does not have to worry about offending Jewish voters and donors until the 2012 campaign starts, Obama is renewing his public pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu to renew the West Bank construction freeze and extend it to Yerushalayim in order to satisfy Palestinian demands. While visiting Indonesia Tuesday, Obama criticized the Israeli government for giving routine clearance last week to four housing projects in East Yerushalayim that are all still years away from the actual start of construction. During a joint news conference with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono Obama said that, “this kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations, and I'm concerned that we're not seeing each side make the extra effort involved to get a breakthrough. Each of these incremental steps end up breaking trust.”

Within a few hours, Netanyahu’s office responded by issuing a statement that flatly rejected Obama’s criticism of the new construction. It declared that, “Yerushalayim is not a settlement. Yerushalayim is the capital of Israel. Israel has never agreed to any restrictions on construction in any way in Yerushalayim, where 800,000 inhabitants live. Israel sees no connection at all between the peace process and the policy of construction in Yerushalayim. For the last 40 years every Israeli government has built in every part of the city. During that period, peace agreements were signed with Egypt and Jordan and for 17 years, direct negotiations were held with the Palestinians.”
Last Friday, before Netanyahu’s departure for the US to appear at a gathering of Jewish Federation leaders in New Orleans, the Interior Ministry published new tenders (requests for construction bids) in Israel newspapers for 1,345 new homes in three neighborhoods of Yerushalayim beyond the pre-67 border. They included 983 units in Har Homa C, 42 in Har Homa B, and 320 in Ramot. The publication of the tender offers is part of a years long approval process which started for these projects in 2008. On Monday, the Yerushalayim District Planning Committee approved 32 units to be built across the Green Line in Pisgat Ze’ev.

The president’s statement in Indonesia echoes the bitter criticism by Obama and other members of his administration in March directed at Netanyahu personally as well as Israeli government policy approving another Yerushalayim construction project in Ramat Shlomo.




This latest criticism of Israel, coming from the highest level of the US government, validate the fears expressed by some supporters of Israel that the noticeable warming of relations between the White House and the Israeli government in recent months was a pre-election ploy. Now that the midterms are over, the White House is again openly pressuring the Israeli government to make unilateral concessions to Palestinian demands.


The approved new housing projects plans would constitute a considerable expansion of Har Choma, one of the newest Jewish neighborhoods in southern Yerushalayim which was built on territory that Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war, and then annexed when it was placed within the city’s municipal boundaries. The Israeli annexation has not been internationally recognized, and the Palestinians claim the land upon which Har Choma was built as part of a future Palestinian state.


Har Choma has long been a point of contention between the US and Israel. It was established in the late 1990s during Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister, over the strong objections of the Clinton administration. At the time, the Palestinians claimed that the establishment of a Jewish presence in Har Choma would complete a ring of Jewish settlements around the Old City blocking Arab access to the Muslim holy places there.


After the dispute broke out during Biden’s visit in March, Netanyahu put in place new procedures to make sure that he would never again be caught by surprise by a low level government announcement of a new construction project in the city. He also put an informal freeze on new construction projects in Yerushalayim until his self-imposed 10-month freeze expired on September 26.




Netanyahu had warned publicly that once the freeze expired, construction would be allowed to resume. When negotiations with the US government over terms for an extension of the freeze refused to reach agreement before the freeze expired, Netanyahu was true to his word. Not only was construction of previously approved West Bank projects allowed to commence the day that the freeze expired, a few days afterward, the government gave its approval to 238 new units in Pisgat Ze’ev and Ramot.


The Israeli media actually failed to report on the approval of the new construction projects until a few days after they had been announced in paid newspaper ads.


Initially, the automatic objection to the move by the State Department which followed seemed to be little more than pro forma. State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters that the US was “deeply disappointed” by the Israel decision to approve new construction in “sensitive areas” of east Yerushalayim, because it was, “counter-productive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties. We have long urged both parties to avoid actions that could undermine trust including in Yerushalayim and we will continue to work to resume negotiations.”




However, Obama’s deliberate comments to the media objecting to the Israeli action raised the stakes. They portend a chilling in US-Israeli relations, as long as Netanyahu resists giving in to Obama’s demands for a renewal of the voluntary freeze which, and its explicit extension to include new construction in Yerushalayim.


Earlier media reports had indicated that the White House was getting impatient with Netanyahu’s refusal to bend to its demands for a renewal of the freeze, but until Obama made his statement Tuesday in Indonesia on the new projects in Yerushalayim, the administration had avoided starting another public fight with Israel, at least until after the midterm election.


There were also reports that if Israel had not agreed to a freeze before the election, the US would change the terms of the package of benefits that it was offering in return, and demand a freeze extension for a longer period than the two months they had originally requested.




Netanyahu’s envoy, Isaac Molcho, has been in Washington since last week to continue the negotiations over the package of diplomatic, military and economic compensations the US would provide to Israel in return for a renewal of the construction freeze. While those negotiations failed to achieve a breakthrough, enough progress was made for the Palestinians to give the talks until the end of this month to reach an agreement on a freeze.


According to Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu-Rudeina, if there is no progress by then, the Palestinians will abandon the peace process and ask the Security Council to declare a Palestinian state.


Interior Ministry official Efrat Orbach said that the routine government review of the plans for all of the construction projects had been in the works for some time, and denied that the timing of the announcements had been deliberately timed to coincide with Netanyahu’s US trip. She also added that it would still take years before actual construction would begin on any of them.


The Yerushalayim municipality issued a statement saying that its “District Planning Committee routinely receives construction plans for approval. Every plan is reviewed as the law requires as it was in this case. The municipality continues building throughout the city for all of its residents.”


Nevertheless, a spokesman for the Israeli Peace Now movement accused the Netanyahu government of timing the publication of the housing plans “to torpedo peace talks and avoid blame by forcing the Palestinians to be the ones to walk away from the negotiation table.”




PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas again repeated his demand Monday that Israel halt all construction in the settlements before the Palestinians will consider returning to the negotiating table.


Speaking during a visit to the United Arab Emirates, Abbas said, “We don’t want to be deceived with another moratorium or a half moratorium or a quarter moratorium. If they want us to return to the direct talks, the settlements must stop completely. Only then we will go back to the talks to discuss the issues of refugees and borders.”


Abbas again rejected Netanyahu’s deman that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, claiming that it was intended to lay the foundation for “the expulsion of about 1.5 million Israeli Arabs,” and to “close the door to the right of return for Palestinian refugees.”


Abbas said that if Israel failed to comply with his demands for a construction freeze, the Palestinians would ask the US to present its own plan for a settlement of the conflict. “If we fail in this, we want to go to the United Nations Security Council to ask the world to recognize the Palestinian state,” noting that “President Barack Obama has said that a Palestinian state would be established within a year and would be a member of the UN.”


Abbas added that the Palestinians had seven different options for going forward should the peace process fail.


Another PA official, Yasser Abed Rabbo said that it was “impossible” for the Palestinians to return to the peace talks as long as the present Israeli government remains in power. He added that the only reason why Israel wants negotiations is “so that it could practice its occupation policies and thwart any political settlement” leading to the creation of a Palestinian state.




Separately, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the construction plans “in the strongest possible terms,” and claimed that Netanyahu “is defying everyone and saying, ‘My choice is settlements, not peace,’” and that Israel alone is responsible for the current stalemate in the peace process.


“There are no compromises over settlement construction,” Erekat told US Consul-General Daniel Rubinstein and French Consul-General Frederic Desagneaux in Yericho. “The Israeli government must choose between peace and settlements because it can’t combine the two together.”


Erekat again reiterated the Palestinian demand for a full withdrawal from all the territories captured by Israel in the Six Day War and the establishment of an Palestinian state with east Yerushalayim as its capital. He demanded the right of return for all Palestinian refugees and the release of all Arab terrorists from Israeli jails. He also rejected any discussion of the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders.




Speaking to a secular audience of American Jewish Federation leaders in New Orleans, Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu, the day after consulting with Vice President Joe Biden, warned that the only way to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons is to confront its leader with a credible threat of military action. He cited declassified US intelligence reports which say that the only time Iran’s leaders halted their nuclear development program was during 2003, before the US got bogged down in Iraq, when they believed that the US might attack their country.


Netanyahu stopped just short of explicitly calling for a military attack on Iran. Citing the regime’s irrational claims and actions, he warned, “containment will not work against Iran. It won’t work with a brazen regime that accuses America of bombing its own cities on 9/11, openly calls for Israel’s annihilation, and is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. When faced with such a regime, the only responsible policy is to prevent it from developing atomic bombs in the first place. The bottom line is this: Iran’s nuclear program must be stopped. Iran’s nuclear program is the greatest danger we face.”


It was not hard to read between the lines of Netanyahu’s speech. He was putting the world on notice that if nobody else is willing to do what it takes to stop Iran, Israel is.


Earlier, he ticked off the other reasons why Iran must be reigned in. “It sponsors terror in Lebanon and Gaza, confronts the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, establishes beachheads in Saudi Arabia. Its influence has spread even to this hemisphere in South America. It has done all this without nuclear weapons. Imagine what it will do with them.”




He also reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to reaching an agreement with the Palestinians on a 2-state solution, but not at any price. “Israelis want to see that the Palestinians are as committed as they are to ending the conflict once and for all. They want to know that just as we are ready to recognize a state for the Palestinian people, the Palestinians are ready to recognize Israel as the state for the Jewish people.


“Israel also wants a secure peace. We do not want to vacate more territory only to see Iran walk in and fire thousands of rockets at our cities. That is exactly what happened after we left Lebanon and Gaza. We don’t want to see rockets and missiles streaming into a Palestinian state and placed on the hills above Tel Aviv and the hills encircling Yerushalayim,” Netanyahu said, adding forcefully, “I will not let that happen.”


He added that “we are ready to recognize a Palestinian state as the state of the Palestinian people, but we expect them to recognize the Jewish State as the state of the Jewish people.” He also warned the Palestinians that the United States would not permit anybody to dictate demands for a Palestinian state to Israel, and that, “there is only one path to peace — that is through a negotiated settlement.”




In passing, Netanyahu noted that a Hamas spokesman had recently admitted that more than half of the 1300 Arabs killed during the fighting in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008 were its fighters, rather than civilians, as Hamas had claimed at the time, and then told the authors of the UN’s notorious Goldstone report. The admission confirms the original casualty figures reported by the Israeli army, which the Goldstone report rejected. Netanyahu then demanded an apology by the report’s authors to the Israeli army, for falsely accusing it of killing civilians in Gaza indiscriminately, a charge which Netanyahu condemned as a modern day “blood libel.”.


Netanyahu conveyed essentially the same message about the Iranian threat to Vice President Joe Biden in their talks a day earlier, warning , that the latest set of US and international economic sanctions on Iran, while welcome, will not be sufficient to stop its nuclear program.




When Biden addressed the same Federation audience, he declared flatly that, “when it comes to Israel’s security there can be no daylight between Israel and the US.”


Biden seemed to be going out of his way to emphasis the close connection between the US and Israeli governments to make up for the bitterness between the two countries in March when the US deliberately picked a public fight with Israel for announcing a new construction project in Yerushalayim during a Biden visit.


During his speech Biden also reiterated US support for a negotiated 2-state solution, saying, “there is no substitute for direct face to face negotiations leading to two states, a secure state for Israel and one for Palestine,” he said.


Netanyahu did not meet with Obama during this visit, because the president was on a 9-day trip to Asia.


After giving his speech to the Federation audience in New Orleans, Netanyahu flew to New York for a series of meetings with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell, Secretary of State Clinton and various Jewish communal leaders.


Other government leaders who came from Israel to address the Federation General Assembly in New Orleans this week included Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Tzipi Livni.




Demands for sweeping Israeli territorial concessions were also renewed last week by a senior member of the Saudi royal family. Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, said in a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC that Saudi Arabia will refuse to “directly or indirectly engage Israel” until withdraws from all the land captured in 1967.


Turki, who is in line to succeed his ailing brother, Saud al-Faisal, as Saudi foreign minister, said, “For us to take any steps toward any form of normalization with the Israeli state before these Arab lands have been returned to their rightful legitimate owners would undermine international law and turn a blind eye to immorality.”


In a reference to the outcome of last week’s US midterm election, Turki also warned the US against any return to what he called the “neoconservative philosophy.” Turki noted that since the election of Obama, many Americans may have believed “that the neocon movement has died, the victim of its own failed, delusional ambitions.” But, he said, “this recent election will give more fodder for these warmongers to pursue their favorite exercise, war-making.” He specifically warned the US against threatening Iran with military action if it does not halt its nuclear weapons program.


Also Monday, the foreign minister of Germany, Guido Westerwelle, visited Gaza and called for Israel to lift all of the remaining security restrictions on items to and from Gaza. Westerwelle said the blockade of Gaza “supports extremism and weakens the moderates” in Gaza. He also called on Hamas to release Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped Israeli soldier who they have been holding since 2006.



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