Something went awry for Bibi Netanyahu. He thought he could play the game his predecessors played and fool the Americans on freezing the settlements (”of course we’ll freeze settlements; only not those in settlement blocs, and not natural growth, and not within the “construction boundaries” of the settlements, and neither the projects that have already started, nor the plans we’ve already approved…. In short, we’ll go on building as we please”).
Trying to avoid a clash, he was stalling. He sent Barak time and again, with such or other compromise formula on the settlement freeze, hoping that in the meantime, his friends in the US Congress and media will manage to somewhat shake President Obama’s determined stand and the extensive support he has. That too is not working all that well.
One of the first rules of negotiations, as well as politics, says: Try to pull the discussion to a field that is convenient for you. A crisis with the Americans in view of construction for the settlers’ children on some Samaria hill would be very uncomfortable for Netanyahu. He knows perfectly well that the world would not tolerate the continued settlement expansion, and that construction in the settlements is no longer popular even in Israel. For example, a public opinion poll that Yedioth Ahronoth carried in June 2009, showed that even some 60% of Lieberman’s voters feel he must not quit the coalition if the settlements are frozen.
This is why Netanyahu decided to take the crisis to a field that he finds convenient: Jerusalem. Now, this is a different story altogether. Jerusalem is a symbol. The Israeli public and perhaps even the US public opinion treat it differently. If there is a crisis with the American concerning sovereign Israel’s right to build in Jerusalem, Netanyahu has better chances of winning the support of the Israeli public, and perhaps even the Americans too.
Pulling a “brilliant stunt,” Netanyahu decided to leak to senior Maariv and Yedioth Ahronoth reporters that Israel’s ambassador in Washington had been summoned for a conversation about the intention to build 20 housing units for Jews in Shepherd Hotel in the heart of the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Thus Netanyahu created the “crisis” with the Americans singlehandedly.
But then, something went awry. The trick was too obvious. The New York Times reported that the story was leaked to the media by Netanyahu himself, while the Israeli media stopped discussing the “crisis” with the Americans and started dealing with the leak. They started asking why Netanyahu bothered to turn a routine conversation with the Israeli ambassador in Washington into a crisis with America. The Israeli right has already started complaining that Netanyahu decided to focus on Jerusalem so that he could freeze construction in other settlements (see Makor Rishon, 20 July 2009).
Netanyahu is hard-pressed. Clearly the leak affair did not serve him well. The little credit he may have had when he first started is running out. His attempts to mislead the public (and the Americans) with old tricks – showing an alleged willingness to freeze the settlement while expanding them in practice – were not well-received by the Americans. The attempt to manipulate the US Administration and drive it into a public, head-on clash over Jerusalem is, as far as the administration is concerned, is unsportsmanlike, foul play.
Still, Netanyahu will lose in this debate too. Shepherd Hotel is not some innocent construction project. Millionaire Irwin Moskowitz, patron of the East Jerusalem settlers, bought that site many years ago. His request to allow construction there has been submitted to the Jerusalem Municipality long ago, but even when Sharon and Olmert were prime ministers, they did not dare raise it for discussion. Cooperating with new Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Netanyahu decided to bring up that which his predecessors avoided.
Building 20 new apartments in the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood is meant to prevent the option of attaining a peace arrangement. Today, everyone is clear that the Jerusalem solution will have to be based on dividing it so that the Arab neighborhoods are part of the Palestinian capital, while the Jewish neighborhoods remain Israel’s capital. In recent years, the settlers have been making concentrated efforts to bring Jews to visit and move into the Arab neighborhoods, which should make a compromise deal there impossible, and thus prevent a permanent arrangement.
If Netanyahu was serious when he declared there is “a national consensus on the two-state issue,” he must make sure that it could also materialize. Building in Shepherd Hotel and in East Jerusalem might deny the chance of attaining the two-state solution.
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