After refusing 21 times to stand by the U.S. commitment in the 2004 letter to Israel; after reneging on six years of understandings about the meaning of a “settlement freeze”; after responding to complaints that public disputes with Israel are not conducive to peace by saying that distance from Israel is necessary; and after saying Israel needs some “serious self-reflection” because there has supposedly been “no progress” in eight years, Barack Obama chose last week — in the midst of negotiations about re-defining Israel’s freeze obligation — to enter into still another dispute with Israel: this time by defining half of Jerusalem as a “settlement” in which not even 20 new housing units can be built.
To appreciate the audacity (a better word is probably chutzpah) of Obama’s latest hope, it is necessary to recognize several points:
First, it has been U.S. policy since 1995, when Congress enacted the Jerusalem Embassy Act, that Jerusalem should be “recognized as the capital” of Israel and “remain an undivided city in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected.”
Second, in his address to a joint session of Congress in 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his views on Jerusalem in terms virtually identical to those he used yesterday with the Israeli cabinet:
Since 1967, under Israeli sovereignty . . . the holy places have been open to worshippers from all three great faiths. . . . For the first time, a single sovereign authority has afforded security and protection to members of every nationality who sought to come to pray there.
There have been efforts to redivide this city by those who claim that peace can come through division — that it can be secured through multiple sovereignties, multiple laws and multiple police forces.
This is a groundless and dangerous assumption, which impels me to declare today: There will never be such a redivision of Jerusalem. Never.
We shall not allow a Berlin Wall to be erected inside Jerusalem. We will not drive out anyone, but neither shall we be driven out of any quarter, any neighborhood, any street of our eternal capital.
Third, the status of Jerusalem is expressly an issue to be addressed in final status negotiations under the Roadmap. It is not an issue for pre-negotiation concessions by Israel in order to get the Palestinians to enter into final status negotiations once again.
Fourth, the fact that Jerusalem is to be the subject of final status negotiations is commonly — and erroneously — assumed to mean Jerusalem is to be divided based on such negotiations. But that is the opposite of what making Jerusalem a “negotiable” issue was intended to mean. UN Resolutions 242 and 338 — the express basis of final status negotiations under the Roadmap — call for Israeli withdrawal from an unspecified portion of “territories” in exchange for recognized borders that are “secure” (which no one at the time thought meant the 1967 boundaries, with or without “minor adjustments”).
Neither Resolution 242 nor 338 mentions Jerusalem, and the omission was intentional. On March 12, 1980, Arthur J. Goldberg, who was U.S. ambassador to the UN when Resolution 242 was adopted, wrote a letter to the New York Times to “set the record straight”:
Resolution 242 in no way refers to Jerusalem, and this omission was deliberate. . . . In a number of speeches at the UN in 1967, I repeatedly stated that the armistice lines fixed after 1948 were intended to be temporary. This, of course, was particularly true of Jerusalem. . . . I made it clear that the status of Jerusalem should be negotiable and that the armistice lines dividing Jerusalem were no longer viable. In other words, Jerusalem was not to be divided again. [Emphasis added]
Barack Obama once supported an undivided Jerusalem. In his June 2008 speech to AIPAC, he said, “Let me be clear . . . [Jerusalem] must remain undivided” — a position he had taken in writing at least twice before. But he retracted that statement a day later and gave a series of increasingly disingenuous explanations for his retraction.
Now he wants all building within the eastern half of Israel’s capital stopped — at least all Jewish building — so he can get the Palestinians to agree to resume final status negotiations, where they will once again demand Jerusalem be divided, this time with implicit U.S. backing from a construction freeze imposed by Obama (or perhaps explicit backing from a U.S. peace plan the administration still appears to be preparing).
In a perceptive article, Elliott Abrams has explained why the Obama “settlement mania” has now created a problem not only for Israel but also for the Abba/Fayyad Palestinian Authority as well. The stakes over the dispute regarding 20 housing units are pretty large.