In response to President Barack Obama’s criticism of Israel’s most recently announced building plans in East Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman made the following statements on behalf of the Prime Minister: “Jerusalem is not a settlement.” “Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel.” “Israel never agreed to limit its construction in any way in Jerusalem.” “Israel sees no connection at all between the peace process and building plans in Jerusalem.”
Most, if not all, of these views have since been repeated by Netanyahu himself.
Each of these statements is untrue and/or irrelevant. President Obama did not object to construction in Jerusalem, but in East Jerusalem. West Jerusalem is the internationally recognized capital of Israel; East Jerusalem, which was unilaterally annexed by Israel’s government in 1980, is not. Indeed, there is not a single foreign embassy even in West Jerusalem, so complete has been the international rejection of Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem, an annexation that not a single previous U.S. administration has recognized.
As the “office” of Prime Minister Netanyahu knows very well, it is not “settlements” per se that are illegal. It is the transfer of an occupier’s population into the occupied territories that violates the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a signatory. Such transfers are illegal irrespective of where they take place—whether in settlements in the West Bank countryside or in apartment buildings in East Jerusalem. It was not only the International Court of Justice that confirmed the illegality of Israeli construction beyond the pre-1967 border, but Israel’s legal advisor to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Theodore Meron, who informed his own government in 1967, shortly after the Six-Day War, that “civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” East Jerusalem is indisputably beyond the 1967 border, and that is why the transfer of Israel’s population there is illegal. While it is true that “Israel never agreed to limit its construction in any way in Jerusalem,” it is irrelevant. Israel signed the Road Map for Middle East peace, which stipulates that the Government of Israel “immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001” and “Consistent with the Mitchell Report...freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).” Neither the Road Map nor the Mitchell Report makes a distinction between construction in East Jerusalem and in settlements.
The most egregiously dishonest of Netanyahu’s statements is that there is no connection between construction in Jerusalem and the peace process. Former–Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert, a former “Likud prince” and head of Kadima, said that an Israeli leader who refuses to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians and maintains he is serious about seeking a peace agreement is lying.
That said, it really should not come as a great surprise to President Obama that Netanyahu seems to believe it is Israel’s prime minister, not the White House occupant, who determines U.S.–Middle East peace policy. In the wake of President Obama’s recent proposal to lavish a stunning cornucopia of gifts on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—giving away Palestinian rights that were not his to give—reportedly in return for nothing more than Netanyahu’s agreement to talk to President Mahmoud Abbas for another two months (which Netanyahu, in turn, disdainfully rejected because he thought he could obtain even more), it is not an unreasonable conclusion.
How else to understand what Vice President Joe Biden told Netanyahu on November 8 in New Orleans before a gathering of Jewish Federation officials that differences between Israel and the United States on the subject of construction in Jerusalem and in the West Bank are nothing more than “tactical in nature.” Is the continuation of Israel’s military occupation and its denial of all rights to millions of Palestinians for nearly half a century nothing more than a minor tactical issue for the United States? Is that what President Obama told the Arab and Muslim world in his speech in Cairo?
President Obama will have to take his own words about the Middle East peace process and its deep moral and strategic implications for America more seriously than he has so far if he expects Bibi Netanyahu to do so as well.