Different actors, same script in latest Jerusalem building controversy

Haven’t we seen this movie before?

The script goes like this: Washington objects to Israeli settlement  construction; there are some angry words on both sides, and then an apparent coming together around some vaguely defined, transparent face-saving compromise. Both sides insist there’s no crisis in the relationship.

And then Israel starts some new project, and pundits write: what are they thinking? There are new predictions of a rift between the two allies, but then there’s an apparently coming together around some vaguely defined compromise and …

Well, you get the point. Round and round we go.

There were some on the left who hoped and some on the right who feared things would be different with President Barack Obama at the helm.

Guess again; the old script seems unaffected by the political changes that swept through Washington last January.

On Tuesday the State Department criticized the decision by Jerusalem authorities to go ahead with  900 new housing units in the Gilo neighborhood.

“You’ve heard us say many times that we believe that neither party should engage in any kind of actions that could unilaterally preempt or appear to preempt negotiations,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters. “And I think that we find the Jerusalem Planning Committee’s decision to move forward on the approval of the – approval process for the expansion of Gilo in Jerusalem as dismaying.”

The latest housing kerfuffle comes “at a time when we’re working to re-launch negotiations, and we believe that these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed,” Kelly said.  “Just to repeat what we’ve said all along, our position on Jerusalem is clear. We believe that… Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the two parties..”

Within minutes the Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament jumped in to defend the Israeli action.

“While we appreciate the efforts by the Obama Administration to delicately maneuver the Israelis and Palestinians back the the negotiating table, it is the Palestinians who are proposing the radical step of bypassing those negotiations and unilaterally acting, while this approval of additional construction in a built up section of southern Jerusalem is not a radical move," Diament said.

Former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin also chimed in as part of her book tour, telling ABC’s Barbara Walters that “I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is…going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I don’t think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand.”

That put her at odds with Republican and Democratic presidents alike, Americans for Peace Now pointed out in a statement.

“Gov. Palin may not be aware of it, but every American president in the past 40 years — Republican and Democrat alike — has opposed West Bank settlements,”  the pro peace process group said. “They have done so because settlement expansion is bad for American national security interests and because they have cared about Israel’s well-being.”

APN is conducting an online drive to deliver that message to Palin.

J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami also focused on Palin.

“Palin’s pandering to her right-wing base comes at the expense of the security of the State of Israel, the lives of those actually living the conflict, and the fundamental American interest in achieving a two-state solution in the near term. Her words reveal a glaring ignorance of damaging facts and a callous disregard of past and present U.S. policy,” he said.

Atlantic blogger Jeff Goldberg thinks the Obama administration is “missing a chance, again, to leapfrog the settlement issue and move directly to the issue of final borders between Israel and Palestine.”

Gilo, everyone knows, will eventually be part of Israeli Jerusalem after a peace agreement, Goldberg said. Instead of criticizing Jerusalem construction, why not “talk tough to Israel about the settlements ringing Nablus, for instance, because these are communities whose existence makes it impossible to create a contiguous, viable Palestinian state,” he said.

Over  at the Jerusalem Post, there’s a report that former Knesset member and ardent peacenik Yossi Beilin predicts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will declare a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction sometime in the next few days – a freeze that does not include Jerusalem, and that Beilin says the Americans “will say it’s not enough.”

Rumors of a limited settlement moratorium have been spreading lately, and some observers say this week’s controversy resulted from Netanyahu’s desire to get a new  round of permits out of the way before he makes the announcement  – with a nod to Obama and a wink toward his settler base.

Then again, past construction controversies have generated similar rumors that eventually evaporated into thin air.

Why does this all sound so familiar?

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.