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With New Tenders, Bibi Goes Nuclear on Jerusalem (Again)

E Jerusalem Construction Site 186x140.jpgSpecial analysis from Lara Friedman (Americans for Peace Now) and Danny Seidemann (Ir Amim).

Over the weekend the news broke in the Israeli press that the government of Israel had approved the issuance of new tenders for nearly 700 units in East Jerusalem settlements (377 in Neve Yaakov, 117 in Har Homa and 198 in Pisgat Ze'ev). 

The news came out first on Israeli Channel 10 news on December 27th (Hebrew only) and appeared shortly thereafter in the Israeli print press

These tenders - and the way they were announced - should surprise nobody.  Bibi Netanyahu has a long history of offsetting any pro-peace moves with reckless, provocative actions in Jerusalem.   For examples, there is the 1990s experience, when Netanyahu offset the IDF's re-deployment in Hebron and the signing of the Wye River Accords by opening the door to settler construction in Ras el Amud and breaking ground on Har Homa.  Or more recently there is, of course, Bibi's decision earlier this year to pacify settler outrage over a rumored settlement freeze by permitting the issuance of settler building permits at Shepherd's Hotel.  And of course, there is the recent Gilo debacle which accompanied the announcement of the settlement moratorium.

With these latest tenders Bibi has remained true to form. 

One would be hard-pressed to believe that it is a coincidence that the timing of these tenders coincides with reported intensive US efforts to re-start peace talks, as well as with intensive efforts to finalize a prisoner-exchange deal securing the release of Gilad Schalit.   Progress on either of these tracks (and even the news anticipating such progress) inevitably exposes Bibi to blistering criticism from his right-wing flank - and the kind of pressure that always brings out the worst in Bibi, and always in Jerusalem.

And let's be clear:  with these tenders, Bibi once again chose the "nuclear" option - the strategy designed to do the maximum damage on the ground and in the political arena.  

If these tenders had just been issued quietly and without fanfare (as is often the case), it might have been some time before anyone - including those of us who track this sort of thing closely - noticed.  The fact is, there is no one-stop, handy-dandy website or publication to track this kind of thing.  If the tenders had been issued that way, the government of Israel could easily have responded to any after-the-fact criticism by professing ignorance, or by saying that the tenders were simply issued in the course of the normal bureaucratic process, or with some other excuse to make the case that this is really a non-story.  

But that's not what happened.  What happened is that the government of Israel deliberately elected to announce the tenders in the most public manner possible and to defend them in politically defiant terms - terms clearly aimed at Washington and the international community.  
As if that was not enough, the story was spun to journalists in a way guaranteed to cause the maximum embarrassment to Washington.  Reading the press reports, which are full of quotes from Israeli officials to the effect that the US was given advance warning of the tenders, Washington comes off either as complicit (e.g. the US knew and gave a tacit green light) or feckless (e.g. the US knew and was powerless to do anything).

In response, the White House rejected the tenders in terms far more categorical than the Obama Administration has used in the past, perhaps reflecting Washington's unhappiness with being publicly embarrassed, yet again, by Bibi.  Where in response to the Gilo debacle the White House expressed "dismay" over the Municipality's decision regarding this one settlement project, in this case the White House statement is a one of unqualified rejection of all Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, stating that "The United States opposes new Israeli construction in East Jerusalem."  Moreover, the statement references Muslim and Christian equities in the city - a nod, perhaps, to provocative Israeli activities in the Old City's Historic Basin.  Perhaps most important, the statement indicates that the US believes Palestinian aspirations for a capital in East Jerusalem are legitimate and realizable (something the US regrettably chose not to say during the Israel's recent strategic hysteria over the EU position on Jerusalem), saying:  "We believe that through good faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem, and safeguards its status for people around the world."  

All of which leads to two conclusions.  

On the negative side, it is crystal clear that Bibi will not hesitate to play the Jerusalem card at any moment and for his own political reasons, regardless of any collateral damage to the US-Israel relationship, the peace process, the credibility of moderate Palestinians, stability and security in Jerusalem, etc...  

On the positive side, the sheer predictability of Bibi's behavior means the US and the international community know in advance what to expect and can act accordingly.  This means - if people are serious about promoting Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace - engaging resolutely to preempt and avert provocations in Jerusalem and get Jerusalem under sufficient control to allow the resumption of final status negotiations.

The fact is, the steps taken by Bibi in recent months - halfhearted and deficient as they may be - have indeed eroded the support he enjoyed from Israel's ideological right.  Those in Israel and the international arena who argue that he genuinely needs political breathing space to proceed are not wrong.  But Bibi's well-orchestrated Jerusalem dramas - Shepherd's Hotel, Gilo, and now the tenders - go well beyond any reasonable tactical maneuvering.  

How serious Prime Minister Bibi Netayahu is about pursuing final status and a peace agreement will be revealed by his actions in the weeks and months to come.  Regrettably, his track record thus far indicates that he will be tempted to continue to manipulate Jerusalem and in doing so undermine the political process the purports to support.