Must be kind of awkward for Joe Biden. The vice president is currently in Israel as a goodwill gesture to reassure Israel that the United States still has its back, as well as to set the momentum for U.S.-mediated “proximity talks” with the Palestinians. And so Israel decided it would be a good time to announce 1,600 new East Jerusalem homes. The interior minister said the announcement, coinciding with Biden’s arrival, was procedural; that the homes themselves had been planned for three years; and that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself only just found out that the announcement was coming. A big coincidence, in other words.
I have no knowledge over whether all of that is true or not. Just as you have no knowledge whether I’m telling the truth when I say that I can sell you the Brooklyn Bridge for $1.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs explicitly condemned the announcement. As did Biden:
I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem. The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.
We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them. This announcement underscores the need to get negotiations under way that can resolve all the outstanding issues of the conflict. The United States recognizes that Jerusalem is a deeply important issue for Israelis and Palestinians and for Jews, Muslims and Christians. We believe that through good faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem and safeguards its status for people around the world. Unilateral action taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations on permanent status issues.
As George Mitchell said in announcing the proximity talks, “we encourage the parties and all concerned to refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks.” (My bold.)
As I said: awkward.
There’s a very specific reason why the move—assuming its timing was intentional—is so provocative, and it has less to do with Biden and more to do with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
For months now, Abbas has said he would sit down to talks with the Israelis if certain preconditions were met; and while one may have expected him to accede to negotiations without getting everything he wanted beforehand, the precondition he was particularly insistent upon was that Israel call a temporary freeze on construction in East Jerusalem. (Israel is in the midst of a freeze in the West Bank, but it does not include East Jerusalem, which falls on the Palestinian side of the pre-1967 Green Line and which Palestinians hope will be the capital of their eventual state.)
“Proximity talks”—in which U.S. envoy George Mitchell would shuttle between the sides—are not the same as direct peace negotiations, which is probably the only way Abbas could save face without securing the East Jerusalem freeze. Even so, Abbas’s decision represented, as the Jerusalem Post reported this morning, a “significant” concession:
when Abbas said for months and months that he would not enter into negotiations with Israel unless and until there was a full settlement freeze, including east Jerusalem, it seemed this was a firm Palestinian red line—not one of those pliable Israeli ones—and that he meant what he said.
Well, now we see the Palestinians can also move red lines, which is worth noting as some kind of talks resume.
Equally important is to understand that the reason Abbas was willing to move his red line was because he came under intense pressure from the US, certain elements inside the EU, and from Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan to start talks, even though all his conditions were not met.
The valuable lesson here: The Palestinians, too, and not only Israel, are susceptible to pressure.
Enter Israel, reminding the United States how much credibility it can expect its pressure to have in the future, and reminding Abbas of what he failed to acquire. After this, if Abbas were to back out of the talks now, one could not call him crazy. And, after this, if, say, I were to suggest that certain elements within Israel’s government don’t even want those talks: well, then one could not call me crazy, either.
As Biden Visits, Israel Unveils Plans for New Settlements [NYT]
U.S. ‘Condemns’ Israeli Construction
Shifting Palestinian ‘Red Lines’ [JPost]
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.