In December 2012, the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee announced a major new housing project. In an area of east Jerusalem called Givat Hamatos, 2600 units would be built. Of some significance, half would be set aside for Jewish residents and half for Arab Jerusalemites. Last week, just before the New Year’s holiday, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem signed an order described as "symbolic," continuing official approvals of the work.
(Background: Givat Hamatos means "Airplane Hill" in Hebrew, and was named that after an Israeli jet crash landed there in the 1967 war. It is mostly barren land, and has been used in the past to house poor Ethiopian and Russian immigrant families. More details here.)
This became an international incident thanks to the clever folks at the Israeli group called "Peace Now." The fact of the deputy mayor’s action had been in the press but attracted little notice until Peace Now gave it great publicity--which played right into the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. This is what led the President to order his spokesman to say the following:
This development will only draw condemnation from the international community. It also would call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.
Jerusalem’s mayor Nir Barkat responded:
I will not freeze construction for anyone in Israel’s capital. Discrimination based on religion, race or gender is illegal in the United States and in any other civilized country. 2,600 apartments in Givat HaMatos that we approved two years ago will enable more young people from all sectors and religions to live in Jerusalem and build their future here, thereby strengthening the capital of Israel. We will not apologize for that.
The administration reaction is curious given that this is not new news, given that Arabs and Jews will live in this housing, and given the remarkably negative speech that Palestinian president Abbas gave to the UN last week. The State Department rejected that speech as "offensive" and "deeply disappointing." I suppose it’s possible that the President thought this had been too tough, and now wanted to "balance" things by tough words for Israel.
But if this was a victory of sorts for Peace Now, it was no victory for the Obama administration or for those who seek peace negotiations. Building new housing for Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem does not in fact "call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians," the foolish and extreme phrase of both the White House spokesman and the State Department. Mr. Obama asked Netanyahu to "think outside the box" during their meeting. But calling upon Israel to stop housing construction in its capital city is not realistic. And what’s worse is that Washington apparently thinks housing construction for Arabs is fine and only condemns new housing for Jews; and by singling out neighborhoods appears to be saying that certain neighborhoods must not be allowed to become mixed ones and must remain free of Jewish residents. If that’s "out of the box" thinking, let’s get back in the box.