The Middle East Channel

Jerusalem, settlements, and the "everybody knows" fallacy

Throughout the past week the world has heard Israeli government officials and their allies in the US --particularly among the pro-settler crowd -- defending construction in East Jerusalem settlements on the grounds that "everybody knows" these areas will always be part of Israel.

The "everybody knows" argument is familiar. Those in the peace camp often say that everybody knows what an Israeli-Palestinian permanent status agreement looks like. Their point being: all that is needed is the political will of courageous leaders to work out the final, hardest details and sign the treaty.

But today the "everybody knows" meme has been cynically appropriated by Netanyahu and his supporters. "Everybody knows these areas in East Jerusalem will always be Israel," they say, "so when the Palestinians (and the Americans) make a fuss about new construction plans, it is just for political purposes, not because there is any real issue."

Those peddling this rubbish are guilty of transparent manipulation. Those buying it are guilty of having short memories and an excess of credulity.

In 1993, when the peace process was taking off, the settlement of Ramat Shlomo -- which last week caused such a headache for Vice President Biden -- didn't exist. The site was an empty hill in East Jerusalem (not "no man's land," as some have asserted), home only to dirt, trees and grazing goats.  It was empty because Israel expropriated the land in 1973 from the Palestinian village of Shuafat and made it off-limits to development. Only later, with the onset of the peace process era, was the land zoned for construction and a brand-new settlement called Rehkes Shuafat (later renamed Ramat Shlomo) built.  

If in 1993 you had asked what areas "everybody knows" would stay part of Israel under any future agreement, the area that is today Ramat Shlomo -- territorially distinct from any other settlement and contiguous with the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat -- would not have been mentioned. 

The same can be said for the massive settlement of Har Homa, for which Israel issued new tenders in the past few days (sometime after the Ramat Shlomo-Biden fiasco). Here, again, the argument is that "everybody knows" this area will forever be part of Israel. But here again, we are talking about an area that at the outset of the peace process was empty land -- devoid of Israelis, belonging mainly to Palestinians, and contiguous entirely with Palestinian areas -- that anybody drawing a logical border would have placed on the Palestinian side. 

American pundits and members of Congress may be unfamiliar with or may have forgotten these inconvenient facts, but the Palestinians -- who have watched Israel eat away at East Jerusalem at an increasing pace -- have not.

Some will argue that these are the facts on the ground today, and the fact is that Israel will never part with the big East Jerusalem settlements. So regardless of sins of the past, why make a fuss about new construction in them?

The answer lies in a closer look at what Netanyahu means when he talks about what "everybody knows."

Because if he meant that everybody understands what will be Israeli and what will be Palestinian in Jerusalem, this would potentially be great news: it could mean an agreement is possible, at least on Jerusalem, tomorrow. And if that were what he meant, then just as he suggests that Israel can build without restrictions in the areas that "everybody knows" will stay Israeli, he would have no problem with Palestinians building without restrictions in the areas that everyone knows will be Palestinian.

But there's the catch: for Netanyahu, there is no place in Jerusalem that "everybody knows" will be Palestinian.

What Netanyahu really means is that East Jerusalem land falls into two categories: areas that "everybody knows" Israel will keep and where it can therefore act with impunity, and areas that Israel hopes it can keep, by dint of changing so many facts on the ground before a peace agreement is reached that they move into the first category.

It is an approach that can be summed up as: "what's mine is mine, and what you think is yours will hopefully be mine, too." It discloses with stark clarity the underlying principle of Netanyahu's Jerusalem policies: the status of Jerusalem and its borders will be determined by Israeli deeds rather than by negotiations. More bluntly, who needs agreement with Palestinians or recognition of the international community when "everybody knows"?

And it is an approach that we see today on the ground, where Israel is doing its best -- through construction, demolitions, changes in the public domain -- to transform areas of East Jerusalem that have always been overwhelmingly Palestinian into areas that everybody will soon recognize as Israeli, now and forever. This is happening in the area surrounding the Old City, in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods like Ras al Amud and Jebel Mukabber, and it is now starting to target areas like Shuafat and Beit Hanina.

The notion that a peace process can survive such an Israeli approach in Jerusalem is not rational.  The notion that Israel can be taken seriously as a peace partner while acting this way is farcical.  And the notion that the United States can be a credible steward of peace efforts while tolerating such behavior is laughable.

Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now.  Daniel Seidemann is the founder of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem.

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

Telling Israel – and ourselves – difficult truths

For all the anger and indignation of the White House and Department of State over the humiliation of Vice President Joseph Biden by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government during Biden's visit to Israel, it is difficult to deny that we virtually invited that treatment.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Netanyahu it was the substance, not only the timing, of the announcement of new Israeli construction in East Jerusalem that the U.S. found so objectionable. Presidential advisor David Axelrod added that it was Netanyahu's attempt to deceive us about the purpose of this construction that is particularly offensive. For the massive Jewish incursion into Arab East Jerusalem is a deliberate effort to prevent a peace agreement and a two-state solution. No Palestinian leader can sign a peace accord that denies a Palestinian state its capital in Arab East Jerusalem. 

But the Obama administration knew what Netanyahu was up to well before Biden's visit. Israel's media reported that shortly after Netanyahu alleged his conversion from life-long bitter opposition to a Palestinian state to supporter of a two-state solution, he assured the settler leadership behind closed doors (evidently not all that closed) that the conditions he is attaching to his acceptance of a Palestinian state, including that state's exclusion from Jerusalem, would be impossible for even the most moderate Palestinian leader to accept.

What is more, Netanyahu had reason to believe that we knew this. Why else would Washington have proposed Terms of Reference (TOR) for the "proximity talks" that accorded the same standing to Netanyahu's refusal to start the negotiations at the pre-1967 border as the Palestinian demand that they do?  Secretary Clinton knew that the Palestinian position was in accord with the Roadmap. Last August, and more recently as well, she declared that unilateral actions - presumably of the kind Israel is taking in East Jerusalem - "will not be recognized as changing the status quo."  By providing that these two conflicting positions must be "reconciled," the TOR compromised the Palestinian position even before the talks begin.  It also encouraged Netanyahu's belief that, with the support of the Israel lobby, he can get away with anything.

But nothing has been as damaging in encouraging Israeli disregard for its obligations under existing agreements and international law than the administration's bizarre notion that halting Israel's continuing theft of Palestinian territory beyond the Green Line is an Israeli "concession" that deserves to be rewarded by Palestinians and Arab countries with real concessions; indeed, that Arab "gestures" are necessary to justify U.S. demands that this thievery end. It is this perverse characterization of Israel's obligation to cease its illegal confiscations of Palestinian territory as a concession that is responsible for the behavior that finally has outraged Washington.

The Obama administration must stand by its repeated commitments to do what it takes to guarantee Israel's security, no matter how serious our differences, and no one should doubt that it will - as will succeeding administrations. But the over-the-top message Biden delivered to Israel that no "daylight" separates Israel and the U.S. when it comes to security is another example of dangerously misleading signals we  send to Netanyahu's right-wing,  hard-line government.

Israeli governments, and most especially this one, have a long history of abusing the security argument to justify confiscations of Palestinian lands and unilateral border changes. Israeli security vulnerabilities are real enough, even if too often self-inflicted. But they are only increased, not diminished, by the sweeping and unconditional assurances that Biden offered in Israel.  What he should have told Netanyahu is that there would indeed be considerable "daylight" between the U.S. and Israel if illegal measures are taken by Israel under the false guise of "security."

The seriousness of Secretary Clinton's demand - that Netanyahu remove not with words but "with specific actions" the obstacles his government has placed before America's peace initiatives and the Israel-U.S. relationship - will be put to the test at AIPAC's upcoming annual meeting in Washington D.C., to which senior administration officials and virtually every U.S. senator and congressional representative regularly come to pay obeisance. The lobby believes that when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, it owns both houses of Congress; House and Senate members have too rarely given AIPAC reason to doubt it.

The Obama administration has now told Netanyahu that not only Palestinian but Israel's non-compliance with previous agreements, and its obstructions of U.S. efforts to end the occupation and achieve a peace accord that establishes a viable Palestinian state, will no longer be cost free. And they have promised Israel to continue to act as its true friend by telling it difficult truths. The message that Clinton and other senior administration officials will deliver at the AIPAC meeting will tell Israelis and Palestinians - and the rest of the world - what the half-life of this most welcome new American resolve is likely to be.

Unfortunately, initial signs are hardly promising.  President Obama told Bret Baier of Fox News that his disagreement with Netanyahu and his government is "over how we can move this peace process forward." If that is what President Obama really believes, or worse yet, if he does not believe it but thought it is politically necessary to pretend that he does,  it is difficult to understand what in the world last week's flap over construction in East Jerusalem was all about. 

Henry Siegman, director of the U.S./Middle East Project, is a visiting research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.  He is a former national director of the American Jewish Congress.  


Uriel Sinai/ Getty Images