Netanyahu insists on East Jerusalem building, hope fades for two-state solution

Israeli Prime Minister insisted Thursday on continued settlement building in East Jerusalem. Israeli expansion in the contested city is one reason Palestinians are losing hope in the two-state solution.

Dan Balilty/AP
Workers construct a light-rail system in East Jerusalem. The line – which is nearly done – will help Arabs, but they also see it as a move to entrench Israeli control there.
Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told AIPAC, America’s strongest pro-Israel lobby, that plans to build Jewish homes in Jerusalem would go forward.
Ilene Prusher/The Christian Science Monitor
Mahmoud, Hanan and Amer Mashni in their home in Shuafat, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem. While a nearby ultra-Orthodox neighborhood is expanding, they've been trying for several years to get a permit from the Jerusalem municipality to extend their home.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted in private talks with US officials over the weekend that his country's settlement building in East Jerusalem will continue, the latest in a string of pronouncements that have driven down Palestinian support for the so-called "two-state" solution, which would involve the emergence of a sovereign Palestine living side by side with Israel.

US-Israel relations have cooled over Israel's commitment to continued construction, as shown by Mr. Netanyahu's recent a no-frills visit to the White House seen in Israel as intentionally humiliating – and Palestinian leaders are furious. The prospects for restarted peace talks with the Palestinians soon are dim.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly insisted that Jews have a right to build anywhere in East Jerusalem, even in the still largely Palestinian east of the city that Israel seized in 1967 but is not seen as sovereign Israeli territory by the UN or other world governments. He told ABC this week: "The Palestinian demand is that we prevent Jews from building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. That is an unacceptable demand."

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Perhaps so. But Palestinians want East Jerusalem for their future capital, and their negotiators say continued Israeli expansion in the area amounts to creating facts on the ground that will deprive them of what they view as rightfully theirs in any peace settlement. Now, Palestinian opinion is shifting towards support for the so-called "one-state" solution, in which a single country will exist between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean with a demographic balance that heavily favors their side.

The current crisis was touched off by Israel's March 9 announcement of plans to build 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, a hilly patch of green that East Jerusalem resident Jamal Amori can see from his minimarket in the neighborhood of Shuafat.

Mr. Amori and other Palestinians – as well as the international community – see the planned homes as part of a steady spread of Israeli settlements in occupied territory. As a result, Ramat Shlomo has become the center of a standoff between Arabs and Jews over Jerusalem’s future – and the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“They’ve been confiscating our land since the 1970s,” says Mr. Amori, whose family owns some of the land in question, according to the Mapping and Geographic Information Systems Department of the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem. “Even if you do own land, it’s almost impossible to get a permit to build. It feels like a strategy to get us to move elsewhere.”

Netanyahu: 'Jerusalem is not a settlement'

While in Washington in March, Netanyahu insisted that Israel will not halt building plans in East Jerusalem, which Israel seized from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and later annexed. “Jerusalem is not a settlement,” he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Amori is exasperated after stern warnings from US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and a meeting with President Obama failed to change Netanyahu’s approach. If Israel’s closest ally and biggest supporter can’t change Israel’s course, he reasons, no one can.

“Netanyahu is there meeting the most powerful man in the world, and it still doesn’t matter,” says Amori, a stout man who says his roots go back to the Amorites, an ancient Semitic people. “The Israelis can do whatever they want.”

What Israel wants is to be able to keep building in Jerusalem – in line with its claim the city is its “undivided and eternal” capital – but still get back to peace talks with the Palestinian leadership.

That is seen as a pointless exercise by Palestinians, who – increasingly frustrated not only by the policy but also its impact on their daily lives – have insisted on a settlement freeze as a precondition to renewed talks.

Palestinians face building delays

While watching Jewish areas expand, Palestinians face a byzantine process that makes it maddeningly difficult to build or expand their own homes in other areas.

Take Mahmoud Mashni and his wife, Hanan, who live near Amori. Their family owned land in what is now Pisgat Zeev, an Israeli neighborhood to the northeast. The couple, who have five children, have been trying for six years to get a permit from the municipality to build a 1,291-square-foot addition to their 700-square-foot home.

But they have yet to get an answer, despite having hired a lawyer and despite the fact that Mahmoud works for the municipality.

“There is real discrimination here,” says Mahmoud. “I’ve been trying so hard to extend the house and make my life easier, but they won’t let me. We pay our city taxes equally, but we don’t receive equally. Look at our neighborhood garbage bin that’s always overflowing. Try to find a park or any place for kids to play in other than in the street.”

These circumstances are mirrored throughout the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

“There won’t be any land left for a Palestinian state, except for outside of Jerusalem,” says Hanan. “Wouldn’t it be better for all if they left the Arab sector for the Arabs? Jerusalem for me is like my own son. I can never give it up.”

Why Palestinians are losing hope for a two-state solution

What Palestinians are giving up, however, is hope for a two-state solution with an Arab capital in East Jerusalem. Palestinian support for the idea dropped to 57 percent in early March from 64 percent in December, according to a poll.

“If a two-state solution means they must split Jerusalem between two states, it’s now become impossible, because the Israelis will never agree to it,” Amori says. He points to the main road, where a longstanding light-rail project is nearing completion. While the train promises better public transport for Arabs, they also see such a massive project connecting East Jerusalem to the rest of the city as one more move on Israel’s part to cement its hold here.

“The Israelis are trying to change the demographics of the city, trying to shift the characteristics of the city towards a more Israeli appearance and content, and to deny the natural expansion of the Arab population in their city,” says Khalil Tafakji, the head of the Arab Studies Society’s mapping department. “That’s what is most problematic about Ramat Shlomo, that it affects the city from the demographic perspective.”

In other words, by the time negotiators start talking about divvying up Jerusalem, Israel will have so many Jewish enclaves inside or abutting Arab areas that it will be impossible to carve out an Arab capital.

Palestinian hopes, it seems, are morphing from statehood to a long-term calculation: If they wait long enough and maintain a higher birthrate than their Jewish neighbors, the demographic balance will tip in their favor. Then Israel will have to choose between a binational democratic state or being ostracized for running an apartheid regime.

“Forget about the Palestinian state,” says Mahmoud. “The only solution now is a one-state solution.”

Further reading:

After US dustup, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces growing challenges
Israeli settlements standoff with US: Netanyahu fails to defuse tensions
Briefing: Strains in US 'special relationship' with Israel
Palestinian support for 'two-state' solution drops
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