Thursday, March 11, 2010

Building Peace in East Jerusalem

Israel has decided to build 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem, and the announcement came while Vice President Joe Biden was in that country to promote peace talks. It was seen as a slap in the face to Mr. Biden who is a strong supporter of Israel, and the highest ranking American official to visit there. Predictably, the Palestinians have pulled out of planned shuttle diplomacy.

I make no secret of my strong support for Israel, which is based on my analysis of what is best for the United States and my belief in the necessity of a Jewish homeland. Nor am I ashamed to say that my support of Israel is informed by my religious beliefs.

Having said that, I am not clear on what Israel did that is so wrong. Undoubtedly, the Israelis have jurisdiction over East Jerusalem. It was ceded to them by Jordan, the previous sovereign, which has renounced any claim to the territory. (This, by the way, is the reason that the term “occupied” does not apply to the West Bank, although by constant repetition, it has become accepted -- a huge propaganda boon to the Palestinians.)

If the Israelis have jurisdiction over the land, they have the right to regulate land use there. Case closed. Those who argue otherwise would have you believe that because the land is disputed, Israel should take no steps that might prejudice the outcome of future negotiations. However, what these people fail to understand is that by forbearing to exercise jurisdiction, the Israelis would be conceding to the Palestinians the very point of the negotiations. Such a major concession on the part of the Israelis ought to be matched with some consideration from the other side. But it is assumed by these people that Israel should make concessions before negotiations.

The action taken was the beginning of a zoning process that would allow construction some number of years in the future. It should be noted that the land is in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood, and across the entire Israeli political spectrum there is universal agreement that the land will never be ceded to a future Palestinian state.

By taking this action, Israel gives an incentive to Palestinians to negotiate now. An important part of any negotiation is getting the other side to believe that it is in their interests to strike a deal, and that any future deal will be less favorable, or at least, harder to come by. Building within a Jewish neighborhood in the eternal capital of the Jewish state creates just that dynamic.

Let us suppose that the Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem will one day be part of a Palestinian state. Said state will be able to make whatever zoning decisions it likes. And if that does not come to pass until Israelis have built apartments there, we must ask this question: Did the buildings make the land less valuable to the future state? While it is true that Palestinians destroyed Israeli-built agricultural installations in Gaza when they were granted jurisdiction there, that was a choice they made for their own reasons. But they could just as easily have chosen to use the farms to feed their population.

As I have said, the Palestinians’ use of this excuse to pull out of negotiations was predictable. The chattering class would have you accept the notion that therefore, Israel was scuttling the peace talks. In every other area of discourse we encourage people to take responsibility for their actions. Is there a good reason why the Palestinians cannot be expected to take responsibility for pulling out of the peace talks? Can it truly be said that they had no other choice? If the Palestinians cannot accept responsibility for their intransigence, then perhaps they are not ready to govern an independent state, in which case, negotiations are worse than useless. By the way, the evidence that Palestinians are incapable of self governance also comes from the fact that the Gaza is ruled by Hamas (officially listed as a terrorist organization) and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) are ruled by the successors to the PLO.

But what of the timing of Israel’s decision? Wasn’t that an insult to Vice President Biden? The answer is yes, it was, and for that reason it was a mistake. It was a mistake committed by a minister of housing, who belongs to the right wing religious party, Shas. Israeli democracy is composed of many diverse groups and undoubtedly, the decision will receive great condemnation for its timing from the many opponents of Shas. When Vice President Biden announced to an audience at Tel Aviv University that he had recommended to the President that the Israeli action be condemned, his remarks drew loud applause.

In fairness to Shas, we should examine the internal logic of their decision. The vice president was embarrassed on foreign soil, notwithstanding his long term, genuine support for Israel. It makes it much less likely that President Obama will be rushing to put himself in the same position. There are those who believe that President Obama will tilt American foreign policy toward the Palestinians, and keeping him away from the region weakens his ability to do so. Some of these people may think that in three years, there might be a different American president, who is more sympathetic to Israel. I don’t agree with any of this reasoning, but it is internally consistent, and explains more than the presumption that Israel was just trying to be mean to friends like America and Joe Biden.

Israel has a right to build on territory that it controls in its capital city. If Palestinians want Israel to give up that right, they must offer some quid pro quo. Perhaps a declaration that Israel has a right to exist in safe and secure borders would be a good start. Perhaps an agreement to share in Israel’s commitment to allow free access to and protection for all religious sites in the area could be negotiated in exchange for a halt on building permits. But it is not for me to decide the outcome of negotiations. That is for the parties. And they can’t do it, as long as Palestinians refuse to come to the table.

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