Israeli expansion plans antagonise allies

24 March 2010

by Gerald Butt Middle East Correspondent

THE controversy over the status of Jerusalem — one of the most intractable obstacles to Middle East peace — has been catapulted into the foreground over the past week.

The effect has been to highlight the chasm between the Palestinian and the Israeli perceptions of the city’s future. But the issue has been complicated further by becoming entangled in one of the most serious diplomatic rows in years between Israel and the United States.

The government of Benjamin Netanyahu, with one eye on its far-right-wing coalition partners, seems determined to press home its insist­ence that the whole of Jerusalem (including the eastern half, regarded as occupied territory by the inter­national community) constitutes the capital of Israel. It is doing so by pursuing a policy of expanding the Jewish settlement presence in East Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu seems undeterred by international con­dem­nation of this policy. Most signifi­cantly, he appears to be unmoved by unusually forthright criticism from Israel’s foremost ally, the US.

Indeed, it was during a visit to Israel of the US Vice-President, Joe Biden, that the go-ahead was announced for the construction of a further 1600 housing units at Ramat Shlomo, close to the Arab East Jerusalem suburb of Beit Hanina.

The announcement torpedoed American efforts to initiate prox­imity talks between Israel and the Palestinians. It also sparked serious riots across East Jerusalem and its suburbs. About 50 Palestinians were injured, together with 15 members of the Israeli police.

“We have not seen a day like this since the height of the second intifada,” a travel agent in East Jerusalem said.

Sporadic violence has continued in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Four Palestinian youths were shot dead last weekend in two incidents that involved Israeli troops and settlers.

In the aftermath of the announce­ment of the new housing, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is said to have telephoned Mr Net­anya­hu to read the riot act to him. After that, Israeli and American leaders were at pains to defuse tension, saying that underlying relations between the two allies were as strong as ever.


But Mr Netanyahu remains unrepentant about his determination to settle as much of East Jerusalem as he deems necessary. In a speech on Monday to AIPAC, the main Israeli lobby group in the US, he said: “The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3000 years ago, and the Jewish people are building it today.”

Mrs Clinton told the same confer­ence that settlement construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank “undermines mutual trust” between the US and Israel, exposing a schism that “others in the region hope to exploit”.

The effect of the recent developments in Jerusalem is twofold. First, the prospects for peace talks (even indirect contacts) between Israel and the Palestinians have faded once more.

Second, President Obama’s standing in the Arab world has plummeted. It was not clear what was said during private talks between the President and Mr Netanyahu on Tuesday, but if his administration cannot rein in the Israeli government on the settlement issue, his personal credibility among Arabs may never recover. Without effective US inter­vention, it is hard to imagine any Arab-Israeli peace process resuming.

Many of the issues relating to the conflict are discussed in a paper just published by Concordis International, “British Churches and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (

Many of the issues relating to the conflict are discussed in a paper just published by Concordis International, “British Churches and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (

One of the contributors, Dr Calvin L. Smith, Principal of King’s Evangelical Divinity School (UK), argues that many policies, such as claims on the land by both sides, “indicate that this conflict is essentially theological in nature”. He is unconvinced that it will be resolved “soon or through exclusively political means. But the Churches can move this debate forward among themselves, leaving the language of polarisation far behind.”

Dr Salim Munayer, Academic Dean of Bethlehem Bible College, focuses on a theology of reconcilia­tion “to create a theological founda­tion on which mutual respect and love can be built”. His paper also highlights the exodus of Palestinian Christians, saying that this and the encroachment of Israeli settlements on Arab land constitute an unprecedented crisis.

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