On the Dangerous Slopes of Jerusalem

The neighborhood covers the hilltops. Beyond the last row of apartment buildings, the slope descends steeply, carpeted in loose rocks, olive trees, and brutally thorny shrubs. A long bridge, part of the highway linking Jerusalem to West Bank settlements to the south, sweeps across the valley below. On the other side, the hills rise again toward the Palestinian town of Beit Jala.

I'm standing at the edge of Gilo, one of the largest neighborhoods that Israel has built on West Bank land that it annexed to expand Jerusalem in 1967. Last week, the Jerusalem District Planning Commission approved covering the slopes below in housing developments. I imagine what honest billboards advertising the new homes would say: "Gilo Slopes: Condos and Townhouses, Three Bedrooms and Up. Clear Mountain Air. Spectacular View of Arena of International Conflict."

Technically, some red tape remains before bulldozers begin carving lots in the hillside. Practically, the planning board's OK opens the way to building up to 1,380 new homes, attracting thousands more Israelis to move across the pre-1967 borders. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could have blocked the Gilo Slopes plan, and chose not to. Instead, he showed his compulsive commitment to settlement building.

The decision also demonstrated Netanyahu's flagrant disdain for the few allies who have tried to prevent U.N. recognition of Palestinian independence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- leader of a county that tries to avoid public spats with Israel -- phoned Netanyahu during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah to express her sense of betrayal, and made a point of telling the press afterward. Building on the Gilo Slopes is a slide toward Israel's diplomatic isolation.

The factors in this fiasco include location, Netanyahu's role, and timing. Start with location: For four decades, Israel has been building a ring of neighborhoods around pre-1967 West Jerusalem. In Israeli discourse, they're described as part of Jerusalem, distinct from settlements in occupied territory. No other country accepts that distinction.

On the south flank of Jerusalem, the new neighborhoods create a barrier between the Palestinian cities of the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem. The Gilo Slopes project will enlarge that barrier, bringing the built-up area closer to Beit Jala and Bethlehem, making it harder to create a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is the utterly unsubtle purpose of the construction. Netanyahu can declare that he's willing to accept a Palestinian state; his government can claim it's willing to return to negotiations. Approving construction on the slopes says otherwise, and says it louder.

True, prime ministers don't normally supervise regional planning boards. But Jerusalem isn't a normal city. In March 2010, the Jerusalem board announced approval of a major project in the annexed area of the city while Vice President Biden was visiting, embarrassing the Obama administration and sparking a diplomatic crisis. For a few months, Netanyahu ordered the bureaucracy to stop new projects beyond the pre-1967 border in Jerusalem.

But like a gambler who can't stay away from the tables, he soon put aside his better judgment. Last November, he lifted the unannounced freeze, according to a source with detailed knowledge of the subject. On a couple of occasions since, Netanyahu briefly delayed construction decisions to avoid spoiling meetings with foreign leaders. This time, he either showed what the source calls "malign neglect" -- not bothering to monitor the planning process -- or gave his tacit go-ahead.

Now add timing: Two weeks ago, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asked the Security Council to accept Palestine as a U.N. member. Along with the United States, Germany has been working to thwart that bid. It has also sought to block a European Union consensus on recognizing Palestine as a state with non-member observer status at the United Nations.

Both Barack Obama and Angela Merkel surely know that Netanyahu is avoiding a two-state solution. Doing his work for him at the United Nations is bad for their countries' international standing, bad for peacemaking, and bad for Israel itself. Obama is merely constrained by fear of Republican opponents with no more sense of reality about the Middle East than about global warming. Merkel has the fierce weight of German history to consider when she publicly criticizes an Israeli prime minister. Perhaps she convinced herself that Netanyahu would finally do right by her. Then she woke up, read the newspaper or a diplomatic cable about the Gilo Slopes approval, and made her phone call.

In the end, Netanyahu can't stop the settlement construction. It's not just that his party and his coalition partners would rebel. He can't stop being Netanyahu. More than the anonymous planning officials, he believes in building that wall of suburbia between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem -- between Israel and withdrawal from the West Bank.

After Obama's speech at the United Nations, it's clear that he's no longer willing to tangle with Netanyahu. The price of that stance is that America can no longer broker Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The empire is weak; the idea of a Pax Americana is obsolete.

The European Union may try to fill the role of the missing peacemaker. Netanyahu has done his best to remove one constraint: German reluctance. On the other hand, he may have removed any hope that Europe can make a difference. If the Europeans do want to act, they should do so quickly. Netanyahu is at work on dangerous slopes.

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