Those who believed the Obama administration’s attitude toward Israel has changed for the better got a rude wakeup call today when Washington condemned the start of a housing project in Jerusalem. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed “disappointment” about the planned building of 1,100 homes in the Gilo section of the city. The Palestinian Authority also attacked the project as yet another “illegal settlement” built on Arab land.
While the administration’s defenders will say the comments from Foggy Bottom are nothing more than standard American criticism of settlement policy, attacks on the right of Jews to live in Gilo have a significance that may presage the outbreak of violence.
The first thing that needs to be understood is Gilo is no settlement. Built on the southern border of the city, it was established more than 40 years ago and is the home of approximately 40,000 residents of Israel’s capital. Up until Barack Obama took office, it was not the subject of much, if any comment, by any previous administration. By seeking to force Israel to cease building houses in existing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Obama has legitimized Palestinian demands for not only a re-division of the city but also their desire to evict the more than 200,000 Jews who live in those parts that were illegally occupied by Jordan between 1948 and 1967.
But Gilo has a special importance that ought to have been remembered by the administration before they sought to make an issue of it. Gilo is more than just another place where the Palestinians wish to push the Jews out. Only a few short years ago during the second intifada, Gilo was the one section of the city that was under constant murderous sniper fire from the nearby Arab village of Beit Jala. Gilo was the laboratory where Palestinian terrorists sought to discover whether they could force Jews into abandoning their homes. They failed. Despite being subjected to murderous attacks for many months, the Jews of Gilo stood their ground and refused to be intimidated. Gilo became one of many symbols of the courage of the Israeli people and their determination to hold onto Jerusalem.
It should also be pointed out that far from being an obstacle to a putative peace deal, building in Gilo — or any other part of Jerusalem — would have no effect on the creation of a Palestinian state if a peace deal should ever be signed. It is generally understood that even according to President Obama’s idea of a border being created along the 1967 lines with land swaps that Jewish Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty. The only way homes in Gilo could be construed as an obstacle to peace is if the vision of peace being pursued is one in which every Jew is thrown out of much of the city.
Even worse, by branding Gilo as a place where Jews ought not to live and build, the State Department is doing more than just trying to appease the Palestinians. It is also illustrating that as far as the U.S. is concerned, this place where terror was decisively defeated is up for grabs. That’s a signal Palestinians may wrongly interpret as American indifference to a resumption of violence.
This latest episode is a reminder that no American leader has done more to chip away at Israel’s position on Jerusalem than Obama. Despite the hopeful signs about a rapprochement between the administration and Israel during the debate in the United Nations, the president is still holding on to dangerous misconceptions about Jerusalem and the goal of the Palestinians.