Let’s put the recent brouhaha over Israeli settlement plans in its proper context. The Palestinians, supported by their automatic majority at the UN and several aging but still obnoxiously loud former empires have decided to bypass negotiations with Israel in order to achieve by UN diktat what they could never achieve at a negotiating table. By doing so they have effectively jettisoned the framework established more than 20 years ago whereby the two sides agreed to resolve their differences through peaceful and direct negotiations. They did this by pushing forward or simply standing aside when the Palestinians pursued steps that explicitly contradict signed agreements between Israel and the Palestinians as witnessed by the US and the European Union. The obvious and straightforward conclusion of such a learning experience is that a signature by Palestinian, American and European leaders on a piece of paper is worthless in the long-term and any agreement is liable to be publicly and explicitly overturned by the Palestinian side at a time of its choosing while the guarantors of such an agreement will cheer or do nothing.
The Palestinian achievement of recognition as a state at the UN opens a new phase in a Palestinian diplomatic war on Israel. The Palestinian strategy is an attempt to have the international community as guided by the automatic majority the Palestinians enjoy at the UN to force a solution on Israel that gives the Palestinians everything they demand and rides roughshod over Israeli interests. This step could have been ignored by Israel were the Palestinians forced by the EU or US to pay a price that would deter them from taking such measures in the future, but they have paid absolutely no price whatsoever. In avoiding punishing the Palestinians and to a large extent even encouraging them these countries have ensured that the Palestinians will resort to similar tactics in the future. This undermines all Israeli faith in negotiations as the framework for ensuring that Israeli interests are satisfied in a future resolution of this conflict. Given the automatic support the Palestinians count on in international forums these bodies also cannot be expected to take into account Israeli interests. Unfortunately the actions of the EU and the US also undermine any expectations that they can function as guarantors of any future agreements and ensure that the Palestinians and Arabs stick to their side of a bargain.
This leaves Israel with very few options for securing its interests. On Jerusalem the current path of the Palestinian leadership is to demand East Jerusalem as a capital without taking into account Israeli security interests. The countries that in a potential agreement might guarantee that Israeli interests are taken into account have demonstrated repeatedly that when push comes to shove they cannot or will not stick to their obligations. That means that if the Palestinians achieve their demand of a capital in some part of East Jerusalem Israelis can sooner or later expect it to be used as a launching pad for attacks on Jews in the Jewish neighborhoods. The Israeli reaction will be walls and other security measures that will make life in Jerusalem unpleasant, attacks will still take place and the tourists will look elsewhere for spiritual enlightenment. I sincerely doubt this scenario is one that an Israeli government can be expected to accept but unfortunately the current international pressure as fermented by the Palestinian leadership is pushing precisely in this direction.
Given the complete absence of alternative means of safeguarding Israeli interests this leaves Israel only the unilateral option of ensuring that Jerusalem can never be divided. Government pronouncements to this effect are easily forgotten by future governments and really provide very little value. The only thing that actually works to tie the hands of future governments is to change the reality on the ground to such an extent that any reversal is entirely unthinkable. Anyone who visits Gilo, the French Hill, Maaleh Adumim or any other large urban neighborhood of Jerusalem or settlement nearby knows that no Israeli government would ever be able to remove them. What Israeli government will announce its intention to expel Jews from a part of Jerusalem? Any international observer would likewise be able to grasp that any demand to this effect would be dismissed outright. There is also the issue of phrasing. How precisely does a well-meaning international diplomat call for the removal of a civilian population from their homes? Certainly they can demand that a neighborhood not be built, but once built, that’s it, it’s done. This is why the Israeli announcement of the construction of a large number of homes in Jerusalem sparked so much diplomatic fire from Europe. Unfortunately, the same Europeans gave Israel pretty much no choice when they endorsed a Palestinian attempt to bypass negotiations, thereby leaving Israel with only one possible path for asserting its interests in Jerusalem.
There are very few ways back from here. Some tactical compromises might be possible in the interests of diplomatic expediency, but overall Israel will continue to settle Jerusalem because there is a total absence of alternative frameworks that would take Israeli interests into account. The international community can potentially change this by building a diplomatic framework according to which the Palestinian move at the UN will be the last such breach of signed agreements by explicitly and unbreakably tying financial aid to the Palestinians to a Palestinian commitment to solve all issues through negotiations. It does not appear that the Americans or Europeans have much of an appetite for such a move and they seem at present to believe that relatively minor diplomatic pressure would be sufficient in forcing the Israeli government to renege on one of its most basic interests – the security of the residents of its capital. We don’t know how much pressure the Bibi government is currently under, but surrendering to pressure under such circumstances when such core interests are at risk would put in question the ability of Israel to insist on its other interests in the future.
In the absence of a reliable negotiations framework to which all sides are committed, Israel can only insist on its interests in Jerusalem by demonstrating that it can unilaterally make Jerusalem indivisible. The stakes here are large. If the Israeli government surrenders on this issue it will have surrendered its capital to a future of walls, division, bombing and terror. It also means that the Europeans and Palestinians will in the future resort to the same tactics of bypassing negotiations and using diplomatic pressure on every single other issue in dispute. If the Israeli government perseveres and demonstrates that the strategy of foreign diplomatic pressure is doomed then settlement construction in Jerusalem can be compromised in the interests of pursuing a renewed peace process on the basis of pursuing a negotiated settlement that ensures that Israeli interests are respected.