Guess who doesn’t want to offend Obama? In the lead-up to the U.S. president’s visit to Israel, Netanyahu ordered a halt to all talk of new settlement construction, reports Eli Lake.
May 18, 2009 file photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) looks towards President Barack Obama as he speaks to reporters in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (Uriel Sinai/Getty)
When President Obama arrives Wednesday in Jerusalem, expect that the planners, bureaucrats, and builders in the disputed Israeli capital will be on their best behavior. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office quietly asked the city government and the Interior Ministry earlier this month to hold off on any announcements regarding new construction in East Jerusalem neighborhoods or settlement expansion in the West Bank before and during Obama’s visit.
The aim is to avoid the kind of confrontation that happened three years ago, when Israel’s Interior Ministry announced the construction of 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem, the part of the city Palestinians expect will one day be the capital of their Palestine, while Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel. Biden protested the announcement at the time. Then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton followed up with a phone call to Netanyahu, telling him that the municipal construction threatened the basis of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Israeli officials today say they are taking care to make sure such a debacle does not happen again. Jerusalem’s deputy mayor in charge of strategic planning, Naomi Tsur, tells The Daily Beast in an interview: “It’s not a regular or frequent event when the president visits Jerusalem. We all have to do our best to create an ambience in which he can talk to both parties and perhaps convene them together.” While Tsur says there are desperate construction needs for the city’s Arab and Jewish residents, she also says she understood the request from the prime minister.
“I think it’s understandable,” she says. “In view of the mindset that has been established, that this is how things must be, then we must do whatever we can to help.”
Earlier this month planned announcements for construction of a wastewater facility in East Jerusalem and a new military college atop the Mount of Olives, which falls within the territory Israel won after the 1967 Six-Day War, were delayed, according to Israeli press reports.
“We have learned from past mistakes,” says Danny Ayalon, who stepped down last week as Israel’s deputy foreign minister. “Now the prime minister’s office will make sure nothing gets out of hand. The bureaucratic process in Israel is so intense and prolonged and complicated, for any project you have to visit and revisit it from the different zoning committees six or seven times,” Ayalon says. “Now I am sure it will be absolutely clear and there will not be any mishandling or any mistakes.”
Ayalon however also says that he thought the Obama administration’s response to the construction announcement during Biden’s visit was an overreaction. While the United States has declined to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and has discouraged Israeli construction in East Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods at the working diplomatic level, the high-level public condemnations from Clinton and Biden in 2010 marked a change in tone and escalation of emphasis for the United States on the contentious issue.
Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem-based lawyer who has documented construction in East Jerusalem and advocates against the settlements, said that in 2010 Netanyahu did not know every planning decision in East Jerusalem.
Source: The Daily Beast | Eli Lake