The recent headlines regarding the Israeli government’s announcement of 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, characterized as humiliating to visiting US Vice President Joe Biden, were completely lacking in substance. Even more than the usually unremarkable and hyperbolized news stories emanating from the Middle East, this seemingly unremarkable story was embraced with enthusiasm by critics of Israel as yet the latest proof of Israeli intransigence and double-speak blocking regional peace.
There has never been an Israeli government that questioned the future of the Jerusalem neighborhoods built over the Green Line. Therefore, there is nothing novel about the Israeli announcement because Israel has never considered any part of the city of Jerusalem a settlement.
In Israel’s first-ever moratorium on new housing construction in the West Bank, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu explicitly stated that east Jerusalem was not included by the policy.
These facts, however, did not obstruct the creation of an international “crisis” and a strain on US-Israeli relations. Whilst paragraph after paragraph of sound bites filled newspaper columns, the majority of the story reported boiled down to mere rhetoric.
The brouhaha, everyone should be reminded, stems from a standard municipal process not even in the purview of Israel’s national government. Before VP Joe Biden’s visit, the Palestinians were being urged by the US to restart negotiations regardless of Israeli construction in Jerusalem. Now they’ve responded to the first ever construction freeze with even greater demands of the Israelis. Initial reports have the US actually guaranteeing the demands would be met.
What suddenly made Ramat Shlomo an obstacle to peace? What changed?
The media are an easy target. Certainly the cycle of comment and counter-comment that facilitated the current rounds of snowballing is a function of media-coverage on any number of topics, especially during what may have been a slow news week. Reporting without a strong anchor in context and with an air of exaggeration is also deserving of criticism, but ultimately the media’s role in developing the chain of events has been minor.
Those who need to be called to task are the decision-makers.
Sacrificing truth for rhetoric
Israeli decision-makers have for too long been immersed in a political culture that views no point as too cheap to score, no attack too extreme. The attitude doesn’t just demonstrate disrespect to Israel’s voters, but as their country’s very public representatives, such irresponsible behavior would have damaging ramifications on the country’s image even if Israel didn’t find itself embattled in the realm of international public opinion. They may not be ultimately to blame for what ensued in the wake of their comments, but sharp-tongued Israeli politicians were the initial shaper of the club that has been used to bludgeon their own country, and some introspection on their part is in order.
What disappoints far more is the very central role of the international players in this incident.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might not be expected to behave any differently, but exactly those parties that ostensibly want to help create a stable and peaceful Middle East must not act with as little forethought and responsibility as they have here.
Assuming that the EU, Quartet, and US don’t actually believe the Palestinian reaction that Ramat Shlomo construction entails “confiscating more Palestinian lands, demolishing houses and arresting and starving Palestinians,” then their toleration and encouragement of what in the past was dismissed as ranting in no way connected to reality is both wrong and indicative of a very dangerous precedent.
Anyone trying to solve real problems has to address reality as it exists on the ground. Ignoring that for convenient clichés and sound bites reflective of an artificial paradigm à la the Palestinian statement doesn’t just distance resolution of the conflict. Such path merely continues the same phenomena present for decades in international forums, an infamous product of which is the UN General Assembly’s “Zionism is racism” resolution. The approach sacrifices truth for rhetoric and is largely responsible for so many of the complications that have been actual obstacles to Middle East peace.
Those parties genuinely interested in fixing what is broken need to take a step back and ask themselves why there is such a gap between the language that they issue and the reality that it is meant to describe. Only if they begin to rationalize between the two and so prevent future pseudo-crises will they be able to encourage constructive movement towards the peace that everyone says they want.