All in all, I think there is news we might smile about today, and other news that, while not happy, is not of the heart-stopping variety either.
First, briefly, as to the “proximity talks” which the PA has agreed to in principle: There is, it seems to me, a reasonable chance that they might not take place. Mitchell has visited both sides to discuss the framework of those talks, and is currently indicating that there are still “gaps” between the expectations of the two parties. This isn’t a discussion on content, understand, but on agreement regarding what will be discussed and in what format. And even on this there is no meeting of the minds.
Add to this current anger in the PA at Israel with regard to building (about which more below), which they say might make talks impossible.
According to a report from Haaretz, George Mitchell has told Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas understandings reached following the 2007 Annapolis Conference are non-binding in the current round of negotiations.
Of course that’s the case, as nothing was signed. But this acknowledgement is a victory for us, as the PA was demanding that talks now begin where Olmert had left off.
Vice President Joe Biden is in town. Actually, I saw his security convoy tonight on a main thoroughfare, which is as close to him as I expect to get.
The good news here is that his main focus seemed to be Iran and not pressuring us on doing more for “peace.” Biden’s words were great, but we have to ask what they mean.
In a press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he said:
“[Washington is] determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and we are working with many countries around the world to convince Iran to meet its international obligations to cease and desist.”
Well that’s peachy keen. I would like a bit of reassurance on precisely HOW Washington intends to prevent a nuclear Iran. To date the evidence is lacking.
Then Biden said: “There is no space between the US and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.”
We must accept these words in the context of what I wrote just days ago about the fact that Syria is now prepared to consider attacking us, something that hadn’t been thinkable for years, because of Syrian perception that the US is a weakening power in this part of the world.
As to peace talks, it could have been worse with regard to what Biden said, at least in public. He indicated that Netanyahu, whom he has known for over 30 years, had taken some significant steps, including “the moratorium that has limited new settlement construction activity.”
I thought that was OK: praise for this, when the original Obama goal had been getting us to totally freeze construction. I would imagine that the Palestinian Arabs were less than happy with this statement, when they are still clamoring for that total freeze as a pre-condition to face-to-face negotiations. If Biden demanded this of us, it was only behind closed doors.
Now as to building:
First, there was an announcement that the building freeze had been lifted on 112 apartment units in Beitar Illit, an ultra-Orthodox community just over the Green Line. The approval on this came from Defense Minister Barak — that’s “we must make peace with the Palestinians” Barak, approving something that the Palestinian Arabs were not happy about, just as Biden was coming to town.
Israeli officials provided explanations as to why this was an exception to the freeze: it was part of a larger project that had been approved before the freeze (actually, during Olmert’s administration), and safety issues were involved if some construction was not done in the midst of other building.
Perhaps most interesting to me was that US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said on Monday:
“On the one hand, it does not violate the moratorium that the Israelis previously announced.
“On the other hand, this is the kind of thing that both sides need to be cautious of as we move ahead with these parallel talks.”
A very lukewarm criticism indeed coupled with an acknowledgement that the moratorium had not been broken.
The Americans were less sanguine about another building announcement we have just made, however:
In an move that was said to be purely coincidental — because of long-term prior planning — with regard to Biden’s visit here, the Interior Ministry has announced plans to build 1,600 new apartments in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line (in what is referred to as “east” Jerusalem but is actually quite north near Ramot), expanding the ultra-Orthodox Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, to the east and the south. A percentage of the housing would be allocated for young couples and public facilities would also be constructed.
Biden criticized this move as “undermining trust” that is needed right now. And Obama’s spokesman condemned it as well.
In Ramallah, PA negotiator Saeb Erekat echoed Biden’s words: “With such an announcement, how can you build trust? This is destroying our efforts to work with Mr. Mitchell.”
But he went a great deal further: “It’s a really disastrous situation. I hope that this will be an eye-opener for all in the international community…”
This is coming from someone who speaks for the PA, that paragon of trustworthiness where incitement has been on the rise.
As long as we can be blamed, the PA will be delighted to find reasons not to negotiate.
Meanwhile, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor David Hadari touring the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah today, said that, “More homes in Shimon Hatzadik (Sheikh Jarrah) will soon be populated with Jews. We’re talking about property that belongs to Jews, and it’s been listed as such by law.”
This is within the broader context of some fierce controversy that has gone on in Sheikh Jarrah in recent weeks following the court-ordered eviction of two Arab families because the homes they lived in were deemed to legally belong to Jews. Thousands of protestors — both Arabs and leftist Jews — objecting to the evictions, which are represented as infringing on Arab rights, were in the streets of the neighborhood this past Saturday night. The demonstration turned violent, with rock-throwing. (The demonstration had originally been banned for fear of violence, but a court order permitted it to be held.)
The presence of Jewish residents, no matter how legally their rights have been established, is represented by the protesters as an affront to the Arabs.
That the rights of Jews is being recognized and protected is reassuring.
The PA is about to enact a law that would make it illegal for Palestinian Arabs to work on construction projects in communities beyond the Green Line. Some 20,000 to 30,000 Arabs work on this construction, but the law would only apply in the future.
Said Economics Minister Hassan Abu Libdeh, who drafted the law, “My population, my society, is contributing to the lifeline of settlements, so I am targeting this contribution.”
Similarly, there has been a PA decision not to allow agricultural products grown in Jewish communities to be sold in its markets.
However, as Aaron Lerner of IMRA has discovered, these decisions run contrary to Oslo agreements, which call for “normality of the movement of Labor between [both sides]” and “free and unrestricted access to each others’ markets [with regard to the agricultural produce of both sides].”
Anyone who visited the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem over the years is familiar with the landmark of the arch, marking the destruction of the Hurva synagogue — that arch was all that remained. That is, until the last four years, as a full reconstruction of this large, beautiful and historic synagogue has been underway.
The reconstruction is now complete, and you can see a video of it here: