Agreement on Jerusalem construction is key to resuming peace talks

Some agreement on new construction in Jerusalem is key to resuming peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Bernat Armangue/AP
Ultra-orthodox Jewish men look at a construction site in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is a sticking point to any new peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The dispatching of special envoy George Mitchell to the Mideast this week is seen in Washington as a sign that prospects for getting Israelis and Palestinians back to indirect peace talks – as a prelude to face-to-face negotiations – have improved.

But after the recent US-Israeli spat over new Jewish construction in Arab East Jerusalem, the assumption is that starting so-called “proximity talks” will follow some understanding about Jerusalem construction.

Some US experts in the decades-old conflict now say that minimal interim measures on Jerusalem will be necessary for talks to resume. This reverses long-held thinking that Jerusalem is such a charged and emotional issue that its status would be taken up only as part of “final” negotiations.

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“We can’t resolve [Jerusalem] now, but we can’t ignore it either,” says Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel. “We have to find a way to get Jerusalem into talks.”

New construction in Jerusalem a sticking point

The US was set last month to announce a return to talks, albeit indirect discussions through Mr. Mitchell as US go-between. Then Jerusalem city officials announced a 1,600-unit Jewish housing project during a visit by Vice-President Joe Biden. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he knew nothing about the timing of the housing proposal – which fed speculation that Israeli forces opposed to resuming talks were behind the embarrassing announcement.

Since then, Mr. Netanyahu has said that he will not suspend all new construction in East Jerusalem in order to get talks back on track, as the Obama administration has sought. But both US and Israeli officials have suggested that an agreement that not announcing new construction in coming months might be enough to allow indirect talks to resume.

“Successive [American] administrations,” when confronted with the complexities rolled up in the city, “have concluded no good can come from focusing on Jerusalem,” says Mr. Indyk, who is now director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. But the current state of President Obama’s push for peace demonstrates how that approach can no longer work, he says. “It has come down to Jerusalem."

That conclusion is seconded by another former US ambassador to Israel, Sam Lewis. “The idea you can defer Jerusalem [to the end of formal peace talks] is an idea whose time has come and gone,” he says. “We have to find a way to bring it in now.”

Both former ambassadors spoke Thursday at a gathering at the Nixon Center in Washington.

Resumption of talks dependent on addressing the construction issue

One idea for moving forward, Indyk says, would be to eschew “prohibitions” on new construction in favor of allowing both Jewish and Arab building. Pinpointing the Old City’s suburbs as the current battleground, Indyk suggests that that Jewish building should be allowed on Jewish lands, and Palestinian construction on Arab lands.

That scenario assumes that Israeli demolitions on Arab lands would cease.

But such an interim solution would confront Israeli forces bent on creating a “holy basin,” or Jewish ring around central Jerusalem, with the objective of cutting off Arab Jerusalem from the West Bank, Mr. Lewis says.

Describing what he calls a “creeping annexation” of Arab lands around Jerusalem by Jewish entities, Lewis says that process will have to be addressed for talks to resume.

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements

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