by Jonathan Cook / March 24th, 2010
Netanyahu arrived in the United States this week armed with a mandate
from the Israeli parliament. A large majority of legislators from all
of Israel’s main parties had supported a petition urging him to stand
firm on the building of Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem —
the very issue that got him into hot water days earlier with the White
Given the Israeli consensus on Jerusalem, there was no way Mr
Netanyahu could have avoided rubbing that wound again in his speech on
Monday to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee (AIPAC), the powerful pro-Israel lobby group.
He told the thousands of delegates: “The Jewish people were building
Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem
today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital.”
Citing his own policy as inseparable from all previous Israeli
governments, he added: “Everyone knows that these neighbourhoods will
be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building them in
no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution.”
Mr Netanyahu’s speech appeared consistent with the new approach
agreed by both sides to end this particular debacle. According to the
US media, a policy of “Don’t ask and don’t tell” has been adopted to
avoid making East Jerusalem an insurmountable obstacle to negotiations.
It will be telling how the US administration responds to the latest
approval by Israeli planning authorities of a housing project at the
Shepherd’s Hotel in East Jerusalem – this time in the even more
controversial area of Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian community slowly
being taken over by Jewish settlers backed by the Israeli courts.
The White House has eased its stance chiefly because Mr Netanyahu
has climbed down on two issues of even greater importance to the
First, he has agreed to make a “significant gesture” to Mahmoud
Abbas, the Palestinian president, probably in the form of a prisoner
release. That is the carrot needed to bring Mr Abbas to the peace talks
overseen by George Mitchell, the US special peace envoy.
And second, Mr Netanyahu has conceded that Israel will discuss the
“core issues” of the conflict – borders, Jerusalem and the Palestinian
refugees – ensuring that the negotiations are substantive rather than
formal, as he had intended.
Those concessions – if Mr Netanyahu delivers on them – should be
enough to break up his far-right coalition, a prospect the White House
craves. The US administration wants Tzipi Livni, the leader of the
centrist opposition, to join Mr Netanyahu in a new, “peacemaking
If Mr Netanyahu could wriggle out of this bind, he would do so. But
his ace in the hole – harnessing the might of AIPAC and its legions in
Congress to back him against the White House – looks to have been
Comments last week by Gen David Petraeus, the head of the US Central
Command, linked Israel’s intransigence towards the Palestinians to the
spread of a hatred that endangers US troops in the Middle East. That
left the AIPAC hordes with little option but to swallow their and Mr
Netanyahu’s pride, lest they be accused of dual loyalties.
In the words of Uri Avnery, a former Israeli legislator: “This is
only a shot across the bow, a warning shot fired by a warship in order
to induce another vessel to follow its instructions. The warning is
And the warning is that Mr Netanyahu must come to the negotiating
table to help to establish a Palestinian state whatever the
consequences for his coalition.
But it would be unwise to assume that the crisis over settlement
building in East Jerusalem indicates that the Obama administration
plans to get any tougher with Israel on the form of such statehood than
Ms Livni, unlike Mr Netanyahu, may wish to find a solution to the
conflict – or impose one – but her terms would be far from generous.
The White House knows that she, too, is an ardent advocate of
settlements in East Jerusalem. When she broke her silence on the crisis
last week, it was to emphasise that, by “acting stupidly” in stoking a
row with the US, Mr Netanyahu had risked “weakening” Israel’s hold on
Instead, the signs are that Barack Obama could be just as ready to
accommodate the Israeli consensus on East Jerusalem as the previous
Bush administration was in backing Israel’s position on keeping the
overwhelming majority of West Bank settlers in their homes on occupied
Shimon Peres, the Israeli president who is much favoured in
Washington, has outlined a “compromise” to placate the Americans. It
would involve a peace deal in which Israel keeps the large swaths of
East Jerusalem already settled by Jews, while the Palestinians would be
entitled to the ghettos left behind after four decades of illegal
In her own AIPAC speech, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state,
hinted that such a solution might yet be acceptable to the
administration. The recent US condemnation of settlement building, she
said, was not “a judgment on the final status of Jerusalem, which is an
issue to be settled at the negotiating table. This is about getting to
the table, creating and protecting an atmosphere of trust around it —
and staying there until the job is finally done.”
Having lost patience with Mr Netanyahu’s lip service to Palestinian
statehood, the White House appears finally to have decided its
credibility in the Middle East depends on dragging Israel — kicking and
screaming, if needs be — to the negotiating table.
Mr Obama may hope that the outcome of such a process will make US
troops safer in Iraq and strengthen his hand in the stand-off with
Iran. But it remains doubtful that the US actually has the stomach to
extract from Israel the concessions needed to create that elusive
entity referred to as a viable Palestinian state.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan’s website.