To return to the new Peace Now website click here.

Ending the "business-as-usual" settlements era in East Jerusalem?

Why did Israel greet Vice President Biden with an announcement of more settlement activity in East Jerusalem?  Was it a deliberate insult?   A provocation?  A sign of colossal hubris?  

The more likely answer is less sinister but no less ominous: this was just business-as-usual - an Israeli government thumbing its nose at the US, assuming there will be no consequences.  

Most insiders agree that Netanyahu probably didn't know in advance about the settlement plan coming up for approval, and that the timing was more about one of Netanyahu's ministers trying to embarrass him than about trying to pick a fight with Washington.   But that absolves Netanyahu of nothing.  For him to not be keeping track of (and taking control of) Jerusalem settlement plans at this point is either gross negligence or willful ignorance.  

And that, too, is business-as-usual: an Israeli Prime Minister who believes it is politically easier and less costly to clash with the US than with his own cabinet or domestic constituencies.

Of course, you can only have business-as-usual if the US plays along - Israel provokes, the US issues a statement, an Israeli leader expresses some carefully calibrated, limited regret, and the whole thing goes away.  Except of course in the minds of the Palestinians and the Arab world, on whose consciousness it is etched as further evidence that Israel is not serious about peace, and that the US is not serious about being a peacemaker.

Could things be different this time?  So far, by not letting this Biden Incident go away, the US does seem to be sending the message:  no-more-business-as-usual.  So far the message seems to be: this cannot happen again.  

And for the record, Netanyahu can make sure it doesn't happen again - this is a question of political will, not authority.  Netanyahu has the power to put the kibosh on new government tenders - like the tender for 1600 units in Rekhes Shuafat that set off this crisis, and like the newly issued tenders for Neve Yaacov and Har Homa.  He can also intervene to stop provocative actions by the Jerusalem municipality - as evidenced a few weeks ago when Netanyahu intervened to get the mayor of Jerusalem to freeze an explosive project in Silwan.

There are some signs that Netanyahu is taking this seriously.  Over the weekend it was announced that meetings of the key committee that approves East Jerusalem plans had been put on hold. Netanyahu also announced that he was appointing a committee to "investigate" what happened - which is silly, of course, since there is no mystery about how this happened, but an "investigation" could give Netanyahu the political cover to implement new procedures that he will now "discover" are necessary.

And clearly right-wing Jewish groups are taking it seriously -- groups like the ADL, AIPAC and the OU are up in arms that the Administration is being too tough on Israel, as are hard-liners in Congress led by the "Israel, right or right" crowd of McCain (R-AZ), Lieberman (I-CT), Brownback (R-KS), Berkley (D-NV), and Cantor (R-VA).  They seem to take very seriously the threat that Israel won't be able to get away with the business-as-usual approach anymore.

But there are also discouraging signs.  Like Netanyahu telling his Likud faction over the weekend that he will keep building in East Jerusalem. And Netanyahu telling the Brazilian president this week that Israeli construction in East Jerusalem has no impact on Palestinians and doesn't matter, since all this area will remain under Israeli control under any peace agreement, and this is something that "everybody knows."  And more ominously, we have new tenders (that were announced in December but not issued until now) for construction in the East Jerusalem settlements of Neve Yaacov and Har Homa.

Which puts the spotlight squarely on Washington.  

Sooner rather than later Israel will test the Obama Administration's resolve (and actually it is doing so already with the new tenders in Har Homa and Neve Yaacov, but so far that story is not getting much press).  And this time, not just Israelis but the entire world will be watching to see if the US reaction is one again just more words - more condemnations, more expressions of impotent frustration - or if this time there are concrete consequences.

And at that point, how the Obama Administration reacts will determine whether this Biden brouhaha was a watershed moment that led to new rules of behavior in Jerusalem, or if it was the ultimate confirmation that business-as-usual - including Israeli activities that threaten US peace efforts and conflict with US national security interests - is still the name of the game.