John Kerry's quest to midwife new talks between Israelis and Palestinians hit a hiccup today before he even landed in the Holy Land for his fifth visit since March. On the eve of his Thursday meetings, the Jerusalem municipal government announced that it had approved final plans to construct 69 new houses in Har Homa, a neighborhood which israel considers a southern suburb, but one that rests beyond the so-called green line. If the announcement comes as a surprise to you, then you simply haven't been paying close enough attention. This is just the latest episode in a clear pattern of Israeli provocations as the U.S. seeks to move the peace process forward.
Late last fall, just after Barack Obama won re-election in a race where pro-Israel credentials were a constant issue, Benjamin Netanyahu's government announced the construction of more than 1,000 new settlement units in East Jerusalem and the heart of the West Bank. That was Netanyahu's attempt to cash in on all the paeans of support from American politicians and to bolster his own standing in the then rapidly approaching Israeli elections. At the time, Lara Friedman noted in these pages other incidents of the Netanyahu administration using politically-motivated settlement announcements, most of them revolving around meetings between Israeli and American officials. Reviewing Friedman's list serves as a worthwhile reminder:
- the September 27, 2011 approval of construction in Gilo, at a time when the Obama Administration was working feverishly to re-start negotiations;
- the May 19, 2011 announcement of action to approve 1500 new settlement units in East Jerusalem, coinciding with Netanyahu’s trip to Washington to meet with President Obama (and on the eve of President Obama’s major Middle East speech);
- the April 3, 2011 announcement of the approval of new settlement construction East Jerusalem and the West Bank, coinciding with Israeli President Shimon Peres’ visit to Washington to meet with President Obama;
- the announcement November 2010 of the opening of the settlement floodgates in East Jerusalem, coinciding with Netanyahu's meeting with Vice President Biden in New Orleans;
- the infamous March 2010 announcement of plans for massive construction in the East Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo, coinciding with Vice President Biden's visit to Jerusalem;
- the March 2010 announcement of the issuance of permits to begin settlement construction at the Shepherds Hotel in East Jerusalem, coinciding with Netanyahu's meeting with President Obama;
- the November 2009 announcement of plans for massive new construction in Gilo, coinciding with Special Envoy Mitchell's meeting with Netanyahu's envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, in London;
- the March 2009 announcement of plans to demolish 80 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, coinciding with Secretary of State Clinton's March 2009 visit to Jerusalem.
Long, I know. And the Har Homa example is particularly troubling. The area of Har Homa in question—Har Homa C—seems especially problematic: "Har Homa was built by Netanyahu when he was Prime Minister in 1997, and was meant to block East Jerusalem from the South," the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now wrote last year. "Har Homa C expands it further South-East to block the potential corridor of Palestinian contiguity."
Palestinians see settlements as gobbling up the territory they want for their future state. This includes East Jerusalem—an area Israel annexed after seizing it in 1967's Six Day War—as its capital. They and rights activists contend that, with settlement building on the eastern, southern and norther outskirts of Jerusalem, Israel seeks to cut off East Jerusalem from the West Bank. But it's very difficult not to view these announcements as broadsides against a U.S. policy that views Israeli expansion in occupied territories as "illegitimate." it's difficult not to see the logic of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who told the AP, "Such behavior proves that the Israeli government is determined to undermine Secretary Kerry's efforts at every level."
Palestinians hold that Israel should freeze all settlement construction before talks can begin, but Obama himself backed away for U.S. support for this demand. That doesn't mean the Israeli government has spent this year running amok as it did last year: instead, Netanyahu's government stopped issuing new tenders for settlements. But today's announcement, and other recent ones like it, show how Israel forages ahead with its settlements policy despite this apparent restraint. "The approvals in Har Homa C, on the eve of Secretary Kerry's [visit], prove that a 'freeze' of tenders is not a freeze at all," Peace Now said today in a statement, outlining a host of other settlement constructions plans that continue to move forward. "The true policy of the Israeli government is to continue to develop the settlements in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank."
What's perhaps most astounding is that Israel seems to peg its announcements to U.S. visits, as if to thumb its nose at lavish military aid and diplomatic cover provided by America.
With his own government coalition in open revolt over the notion of even attempting a two-state solution and Netanyahu losing control of his Likud party, it's not clear Netanyahu is in the driver's seat anymore. Of a 10-month settlement freeze in 2009, Netanyahu recently remarked, "I said that’s almost impossible to do, but I ended up doing it!" What's amazing today isn't that Netanyahu seems unable to muster the political muscle to reinstitute a full freeze, but that he can't even keep his government from making settlement announcements with obvious provocative timing.