JERUSALEM — Good timing obviously is not one of the Israeli government’s attributes.
Immediately after the so-called Quartet (the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia) called for the resumption of talks on a two-state solution to the dispute with the Palestinian Authority, the Interior Ministry here gave the green light to 1,100 more apartments in Jerusalem’s Gilo quarter.
The area earmarked for their construction extends well beyond the 1949 cease-fire line into the West Bank, the sector designated as the projected Palestinian state.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues in Ramallah have declared repeatedly that no new settlements can be built while bilateral negotiations are under way. Nor can there be any new construction in existing settlements insofar as they are concerned. Gilo, according to its terminology, is a settlement. The Israeli government regards it as being within Jerusalem’s city limits.
Ironically, the ministry’s announcement coincided with the start of cabinet-level deliberations on terms for the talks’ resumption; a parallel discussion had just begun in Abbas’ government.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted as having told an interviewer during his recent stay in New York where he addressed the U.N. General Assembly that “Israel builds,” and that’s that. Fine, but there are diplomatic consequences. Among them is the predictable Palestinian reaction: No talks unless the construction is suspended, stopped or canceled (they choose the most appropriate word from their standpoint).
If one could assume that Israelis are clamoring for a chance to live in Gilo or that there is no other area available for new housing it might be a different story. But that certainly is not the case. The only explanation that comes to mind is that the Netanyahu government, which is right-wing and blindly nationalistic, works hand in glove with the contractors who profit from such projects (and support Netanyahu’s Likud party), or that it is not sincerely interested in a dialogue with the Palestinians that would, ipso facto, lead to the cession of West Bank territory — a sector it prefers to call, “Judea and Samaria.”
The biggest contradiction in all this is much more fundamental and potentially insoluble. It is that the Palestinian Authority headed by Abbas does not control all of the “Palestinian territories” (as the international news media are wont to call them).
Hamas, the Iranian-backed Islamic extremist outfit, rules the Gaza Strip and it is not, nor ever will be, a party to any negotiations with Israel. Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist. Moreover, its prime minister, Ismail Haniya, proclaimed recently that all of Palestine belongs to the Arabs and that they will recover it in toto. That would leave Israel nowhere.
In effect, the Obama administration, which assailed Israel’s decision to build the 1,100 new housing units in Gilo, is in league with the three other members of the Quartet in pushing for a two-state solution that would not include the Gaza Strip. If it were to be consummated, this would result in a three-state solution to the dispute over pre-1948 Palestine: Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Instead of insisting on a diplomatic forum in which the Israeli and Palestinian participants virtually would be wearing blindfolds, the Quartet should concentrate on the need to terminate Hamas’ control of Gaza. Hamas, which tolerates and allegedly participates in the launching of missiles, rockets and mortar shells at Israeli territory, will be a constant threat to whatever arrangement Abbas’ and Netanyahu’s negotiators may produce.
Its very existence also undermines the Palestinian Authority’s political survival. This is because Hamas operatives and ideologues are entrenched all over the West Bank, are discreetly spreading their political concepts and are intent on replacing Abbas’ rival Palestine Liberation Organization (Fatah) regime in Ramallah with an alternative government dominated by Hamas personnel and adhering to their Iranian-inspired beliefs, i.e. that Israel’s existence is intolerable and illegitimate.
Perhaps the real reason for the Netanyahu government’s ostensibly bad timing in announcing the construction of the 1,100 new apartments in Gilo is that it sees no point in re-entering talks with the Palestinian Authority at this stage. Alternatively, it may want the Gilo project to become a catalyst for resuming negotiations without any pre-conditions.
The construction freeze demanded by Abbas is a precondition that Netanyahu cannot meet if only because of the political makeup of his coalition government.
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)