As the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority prepared for so-called proximity talks, David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President Obama, told reporters from the Jewish press last Tuesday that “Jerusalem as an issue can’t be the first issue for negotiations. It probably will be the last.”
The comments from Axelrod came after Obama had lunch with Elie Wiesel following Wiesel’s full-page ad in newspapers criticizing the U.S. for pressuring Israel on the issue of Jerusalem. After the lunch, Wiesel told Haaretz that he has a “feeling” that Obama “respects my advice to wait with Jerusalem until the end of the process, and understands my position.”
The insistence on Jerusalem as such a sensitive issue that needs to be tip-toed around until the end of negotiations is a failed approach, which the Clinton administration bought into at Camp David. It will only allow Israel to continue with its strategy of building illegal settlements in “Greater Jerusalem,” cutting East Jerusalem off from the West Bank.
This strategy will definitively put the nail in the coffin of the two-state solution. The international consensus on East Jerusalem is clear: it is occupied Palestinian territory, the future capital city of a Palestinian state, and any settlements built there are illegal and need to be dismantled.
It’s nonsense to pretend that waiting to discuss Jerusalem will do any good. It will do harm, especially if Israel goes through with a planned 50,000 additional housing units in East Jerusalem. Israel is eager to get negotiations off the ground because it serves as a convenient cover for creating facts on the ground while they talk and talk with the Palestinians. That’s what occurred during Oslo, eventually leading to its demise.
The question mark is how the Obama administration will react when new settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are announced in the midst of negotiations, which is guaranteed to happen.
The Obama people are not showing themselves to be good students of history. William Quandt, a former National Security Council member who worked on the Middle East, wrote about the folly of leaving Jerusalem for last at Camp David in his book Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1967: “But it still is striking that that the participants at Camp David did not discuss in detail the possible solutions for Jerusalem until the last days of the summit” (page 371). The talks collapsed, in part, because “the Jerusalem issue had proved to be the stumbling block” (page 375).
Gideon Levy, writing in Haaretz, outlines why this strategy is foolhardy and harmful to the Palestinians:
Wiesel will make arrangements and Obama will postpone. Around a quarter of a million Palestinians will continue to live another generation under Israeli occupation. A quarter of a million? Three and a half million, because to Obama, Wiesel and in fact everyone, it’s clear that without dividing Jerusalem there will be no peace.
And what if Obama postpones discussions on Jerusalem as his friend requested? Postpone until when? For another 43 years? Maybe another 430 years? And what will happen in the meantime? Another 100,000 settlers? A Hamas government in the West Bank, too? And why? Because Jerusalem isn’t mentioned in the Koran, its Palestinian residents don’t have a right to self-determination?
And what about the sanctity of Jerusalem as the third holiest city in Islam after Mecca and Medina? What does sanctity have to do with sovereignty, anyhow? What will happen if once again the discussion is postponed and they talk about water, as Netanyahu wants? These are all questions the friend was not asked.