By Gil Yaron in Tel Aviv
With Rosh Hashana approaching, even the bureaucrats should have already headed home long ago. In Israel, the Jewish new year celebration is one of the most important holidays, a time when panicked housewives rush to supermarkets only to wait in endless lines. The hoarding continues right up until the very last minute before Israel falls into a three-day holiday coma.
But, on Wednesday afternoon, officials were still working under high pressure in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, trying to defuse the international uproar over the planned building of a new settlement in Jerusalem. "The prime minister is worried about how the decision to build more housing units will be portrayed around the world," said a senior adviser tasked with making the rounds with foreign journalists.
Diplomatic channels have been used, the adviser said, "to explain to the world that Israel is not damaging the peace process." The building in Jerusalem does not contradict "our desire for negotiations in any way," he continued.
Still, Benjamin Netanyahu's strategy of explaining things -- based on continued insistence that Israel doesn't make mistakes -- only illustrates how far removed Israel's views are from those of the rest of the world.
Just last Friday, in a speech before the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu had pulled out all the stops in an effort to present himself as a peace-loving statesman. He called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to immediately resume talks while assuring everyone that he was prepared to make "painful compromises."
A few days later, the Mideast Quartet -- which consists of the European Union, the UN, the US and Russia -- took up Netanyahu's call and demanded in only slightly veiled diplomatic terms a new halt to settlement construction in areas on the other side of the "Green Line," which marked the cease-fire line between Jordan and Israel before the 1967 Six-Day War. Since Palestinians consider everything Israel builds east of the Green Line illegal, the Palestinian Authority is demanding a halt to their construction as a precondition for resuming direct peace talks.
The Quartet's new initiative aims to bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. And, for a brief while, it even looked like Netanyahu might soften his stance and consider putting a halt to construction -- despite the fact that doing so could trigger the fall of his right-wing coalition. What's more, even his cabinet reacted positively to the Quartet's recommendation.
But then came the bombshell: The country's Interior Ministry announced that permission had been granted to build 1,100 new housing units in Gilo, a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem on the other side of the Green Line.
The Palestinian Authority immediately condemned the move. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat called the decision "a slap in the face to all international efforts to protect the fading prospects of peace in the region," adding that it amounted to "1,100 no's to the resumption of peace talks."
Few Israelis can understand this agitation. From their point of view, East Jerusalem deserves a special status and the Jewish housing units around the city are not settlements but, rather, parts of their capital.
Indeed, in his UN speech, Netanyahu was speaking from the heart when he compared a UN decision to classify Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall, Judaism's holiest site, as "occupied Palestinians areas," in his words, to deciding whether "the sun sets in the west or rises in the west."
Mark Regev, the prime minister's spokesman, contacted SPIEGEL ONLINE shortly before the start of the holiday. He insisted that "Gilo is not a settlement," noting that it "is less than 10 minutes by car from the city's center."
Regev also said that every planned peace accord has envisioned having Gilo belong to the state of Israel. "So building there," he explained, "doesn't in the slightest contradict our strategy of striving for peace and being prepared to make great concessions."
"I don't think there is anything new," Netanyahu said of the planned building in a holiday interview with the Jerusalem Post. "We plan in Jerusalem. We build in Jerusalem. Period. The same way Israeli governments have been doing for years, since the end of the 1967 war."
Disappointment and Alienation
Foreign diplomats have little understanding for such explanations. The US and the EU have announced they are "deeply disappointed" by the construction.
Still, this isn't the first time in the last 18 months that building authorities in Jerusalem have made Netanyahu look bad. For example, in March 2010, they disgraced him during a visit by US Vice President Joseph Biden. Israel announced the construction of 1,600 housing units in the eastern part of the city just as Biden was visiting Abbas. He was furious -- and relations with the US cooled considerably.
German diplomats are also working hard to jump-start negotiations. For months, they have been complaining to journalists off the record that Netanyahu doesn't approach them enough "to better defend Jerusalem's position in the EU."
Inside sources also say there is growing disappointed and alienation within the German Chancellery. Though Netanyahu doesn't find anything unkosher about building these new settlements, the sources say the decision to do might only increase the distance felt between Israel and its allies.
Stay informed with our free news services:
|All news from SPIEGEL International||Twitter | RSS|
|All news from World section||RSS|
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2011
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH