For those wondering what President Obama meant when he reportedly told American Jewish leaders that Israel needs to “engage in serious self-reflection,” the answer wasn’t long in coming.
Tensions have now emerged over building homes for Jews — not in large West Bank settlements, but in East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel in 1967 and ever since has been part of a united Jerusalem in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims live and worship freely.
On Thursday, someone in the State Department — responding to pressure from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — told Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren that the Obama administration wanted Israel to put a halt to a housing project in East Jerusalem. The plan is to build 20 apartments in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The site is near Mount Scopus (home to the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital) and Israel’s national police headquarters, has been in private hands since it was bought by U.S. millionaire Irving Moskowitz in 1985, and was a border police station from 1987 to 2002.
It was Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government that reportedly decided to go public with the matter, as a way of conveying that when it comes to construction, Jerusalem is a red line.
Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday:
We cannot accept the fact that Jews wouldn’t be entitled to live and buy anywhere in Jerusalem. I can only imagine what would happen if someone suggested Jews could not live in certain neighborhoods in New York, London, Paris or Rome. … United Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people in the State of Israel, and our sovereignty over the city is not subject to appeal. … There is no ban on Arabs buying apartments in the west of the city, and there is no ban on Jews building or buying in the city’s east. This is the policy of an open city.
On Monday, U.S.-Israeli tensions appeared to be flaring on another front as well. With Defense Secretary Robert Gates reportedly planning to visit Israel next week to discuss Tehran’s nuclear program, a “senior U.S. defense official” was quoted as coming out strongly against an Israeli strike on Iran:
“A unilateral third-party attack on Iran’s nuclear program,” the official reportedly said, “could have profoundly destabilizing consequences. … It would affect Israel’s security and it would affect our interests, and the safety of our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere. … It’s a pretty big deal, and given the closeness of our relationship with Israel, I think we would hope that they would take those strategic calculations into account.”
The statement contrasts sharply with Vice President Joseph Biden’s assertion just two weeks ago that “Israel can determine for itself — it’s a sovereign nation — what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.” In hindsight, Biden’s words were either a gaffe or part of an attempt by the administration to sow confusion in the minds of the mullahs; the former seems more likely.