Herb Keinon
The Jerusalem Post (Analysis)
October 4, 2011 - 12:00am

A decision by the Interior Ministry in March 2010 during the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden to issue a tender for the construction of a new housing project in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, which is over the Green Line, sparked a mini-crisis with the US and brought ties between the two countries to their lowest point in years.

A similar decision by the Interior Ministry last week, this one having to do with a plan to build a new project in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, which is also over the Green Line, triggered a tough phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but a relatively tepid response from Washington.

The US State Department sufficed with calling the plans “counterproductive.” Gilo 2011 is not Ramat Shlomo 2010, and one of the reasons why has to do with the lack of the element of surprise. This time Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was not taken by surprise by the Interior Ministry announcement, and it is safe to assume that – as a result – the Americans were not surprised either.

Asked in his Rosh Hashana interview with The Jerusalem Post whether the Americans were aware of the Gilo plan, Netanyahu said, “They know this; they have followed this for a long time. There is really nothing new.”

Back in 2010, Netanyahu said the Ramat Shlomo decision was an Interior Ministry bureaucratic move that he knew nothing about in advance, and that he was as surprised by its timing as was Biden. Building plans for projects in the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem do not customarily come across his desk, he argued.

But following that incident, and the problems it caused with the Obama administration, a mechanism was established whereby Netanyahu was to be informed of projects and tenders beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem.

In other words, Netanyahu – as he made clear in his interview with the Post – knew that the Interior Ministry was going to deal with a project last Thursday, but decided not to intervene.

Since it is safe to assume he also knew this would only complicate efforts to get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table on the basis of the new Quartet framework for talks, and that it would also lead to international condemnation, the question that needs to be asked is why he chose not to intervene? One of the reasons has to do with domestic politics, and the other with Israel’s negotiating position vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

Regarding the domestic political consideration, had Netanyahu ordered the Interior Ministry not to approve plans for the project at this time, it would have made as big a splash domestically as the decision to go ahead with the project made overseas.

Intervention by Netanyahu on this matter is not something that could have been done quietly, since the Interior Ministry is in the hands of Shas, the party that sees itself as the guardians of Jerusalem, and would not likely have let such a move go by unnoticed.

An unprecedented decision to hold up a project inside Jerusalem’s municipal borders because of concern of how it would be interpreted abroad would have caused Netanyahu not only political problems with Shas, but also with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu. Netanyahu’s political stability and coalition calm would have been dealt a serious blow.

Instead, as Netanyahu told the Post, “We plan in Jerusalem. We build in Jerusalem. Period. The same way Israeli governments have been doing for 44 years, since the end of the 1967 War.”

When Netanyahu says those words, they are not only geared at his domestic audience, but for the Palestinians as well.

No Israeli government, indeed, has held up building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line since the Six Day War. For Netanyahu to do so would be tantamount to a major pre-negotiations concession to the Palestinians, at a time when the Palestinians have given no indication of a willingness to reciprocate with a concession of their own.

While Merkel may believe that Gilo is “near Jerusalem,” as she told Netanyahu in their telephone conversation last week, Netanyahu and the vast majority of this country views it as an integral part of Jerusalem. Therefore, there is huge significance in stopping or even postponing construction of a Jewish neighborhood in the capital because of Palestinian or international pressure.

This is not something Netanyahu would likely consider in any circumstance, let alone when the Palestinians are in the midst of waging a “diplomatic intifada” against Israel at the UN.


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