This time the Israelis have given Barack Obama plenty of notice. They announced a master plan to expand Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem a full week before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the president.
So Obama wasn’t blindsided like Joe Biden, who was slapped in the face with a settlement expansion announcement on the day of his visit to Israel in March. But that’s unlikely to make the president any happier about the Israeli defiance of the settlement freeze, to say nothing of international law, and it portends yet another collision in what Israeli ambassador Michael Oren has been quoted as describing as a tectonic shift in American-Israeli relations.
The proposed Jerusalem master plan — objectors have 60 days to submit reservations — would henceforth apply the same zoning and construction procedures to both East and West Jerusalem in another attempt to cement the city’s forced unification. Most of the planned expansion will swallow up privately owned Arab property — but whether on private or public land, the entire Israeli settlement enterprise is as illegal in East Jerusalem as it is in the rest of the territories Israel occupied during the 1967 war.
The Israeli settlers clearly think they have the upper hand: Even if Obama wants to get tough with Israel, the November elections will give him pause. Democratic candidates need all the money and votes they can get and the alternative new American Jewish lobby, J Street, is not yet strong enough to counter the electoral clout of the long-established Israel lobby.
The settlers thus continue to thumb their nose at the international community and get away with it, as they have done for 43 years and counting. In fact, on the same day that the master plan was announced, Israel began new housing construction in the Shepherd Hotel complex in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. When those plans were announced a year ago Hillary Clinton demanded Israel cancel the building permits. Now that the fuss has died down, the building has started up.
Israel has made terrible changes to West and East Jerusalem in architectural and human terms, inexorably squeezing Palestinians — Muslim and Christian — out in favor of Israeli Jews. As the Jerusalem-based lawyer Daniel Seidemann noted in a recent article on ForeignPolicy.com’s The Middle East Channel, Israel has issued only 4,000 permits for private Palestinian construction in East Jerusalem although the population has quadrupled to 280,000 since 1967 (and would have been higher if not for Israeli measures). Palestinians are forced to choose between building “illegally” on their own land and risking home demolition or — as Israel would prefer — leaving altogether.
Withholding permits is just one way that Israelis “cleanse” Jerusalem of Palestinians. Others include forced evictions, cancellation of residence permits, the separation Wall, cutting off the rest of the West Bank from Jerusalem, and just plain harassment. In Sheikh Jarrah, for example, settlers mounted loudspeakers to blast music around the surrounding blocks.
The settlers can do a lot of damage between now and November. If the American administration is unable to rein its Israeli ally in before then, they might want to ask their European or other partners to do so. After all, Jerusalem is not recognized as Israel’s capital and embassies are based in Tel Aviv. The last two countries of a handful of countries to have embassies in Jerusalem — El Salvador and Costa Rica — moved them back to Tel Aviv in the wake of Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006.
It is also time to forcefully remind Israel not only that everything it is doing in occupied East Jerusalem is illegal but also that its sovereignty does not extend over West Jerusalem either. The major powers — including the United States and the European Union — still consider Jerusalem a corpus separatum as provided by United Nations General Assembly resolution 181, which partitioned Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. This status can only be changed by a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. That’s partly why despite repeated attempts by Congress to get successive American administrations to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, they have not done so.
Certainly the Obama administration cannot afford to let Israel’s actions go unchallenged. Although settler attacks on Palestinian Jerusalemites are not well covered in the Western media, Arabs and Muslims see heartbreaking scenes on their television screens further inflaming sentiment in a region in which America is embroiled. Obama would do well to get America’s allies to take action right now and then bring America’s full weight to bear behind peace — and justice — after the November elections.
Meanwhile, the Israeli settler movement may find that its accelerated colonization of East Jerusalem to create facts on the ground may boomerang by refocusing attention on the status of the city as a whole, East and West.
NADIA HIJAB is an independent analyst and a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.