Not long ago, President Obama demanded an end to all construction in and around Israeli settlements on the West Bank, including “natural growth” construction. Prime Minister Netanyahu, taking a position that Israelis overwhelmingly support, rejected this demand. The U.S. and Israel are reportedly attempting to reach some sort of a compromise on this issue.
Now, Obama has decided to pick a new fight with Israel by demanding that Israel freeze construction in an east Jerusalem housing complex. At issue are 20 apartments in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in east Jerusalem, near Mount Scopus, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the National Police headquarters.
Prime Minister Netanyahu rejected Obama’s demand out of hand. He declared that Jerusalem is an open, undivided city “that has no separation according to religion or national affiliation.” Netanyahu added that “we cannot accept the idea that Jews will not have the right to live and purchase in all parts of Jerusalem.” He explained that, just as there would be an international outcry if Jews were prohibited from buying property in New York, London, Paris or Rome, so too Jews should not be prohibited from buying property in Jerusalem.
Obama’s latest demand left Israel’s leaders scratching their heads. Netanyahu reportedly asked his cabinet meeting what Obama was thinking, and whether he really believed that, after Netanyahu built 20,000 homes in Jerusalem during his first term as prime minister, he would not build 20 more apartments now in the shadow of Mount Scopus.
Similarly, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman described the US demand as “odd.” He stated:
Thousands of Arab families build houses in Jerusalem, in the neighborhoods of Neve Yaakov and French Hill, and I’ve never heard any comment on the matter from the United States or Europe. I’m trying to put this delicately: It would be very strange if Jews were discriminated against in Jerusalem of all places, especially in light of the fact that it is not an isolated site; this is the heart of the city, very close to the Government Compound and Israel Police Headquarters.
Why, then, did Obama make this demand? Perhaps, in his efforts to impress the Arab world, he has simply become a messenger for Palestinian grievances. Perhaps he wanted to throw new demands into the mix in the hope of increasing his prospects for obtaining concessions on West Bank construction. It may also be the case that Obama doesn’t know enough about Jerusalem and about Netanyahu’s past practices to realize how ridiculous his latest demand would seem. And those in the State Department who do know probably would rather not educate the president.
In all events, Obama is losing credibility with Israel by the minute. And this loss of credibility would seem to diminish his ability not only to broker a peace agreement, but to be taken seriously on the narrow issue of settlements. As Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein put it: “A demand to cease construction in a neighborhood situated only several meters from the Hebrew University proves how dangerous it is to be dragged into a debate on settlement freeze, which will lead to a total demand to freeze our normal lives throughout the entire State of Israel.”