After Obama Criticizes Israel, Palestinians Push for Urgent U.N. Security Council Meeting

By Patrick Goodenough | November 11, 2010 | 5:37 AM EST

Riyad Mansour, “Palestine’s” permanent observer to the United Nations, addresses a Security Council meeting on October 18, 2010. (UN Photo by Paulo Filgueiras)

( – Buoyed by President Obama’s criticism of Israel during his visit to Indonesia, the Palestinian Authority is seeking an urgent U.N. Security Council meeting to confront Israel on its housing plans in Jerusalem.

Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeinah told news agencies the P.A. wanted the Security Council to tackle “the issue of widespread settlement in Jerusalem and the West Bank.”

Israel’s confirmation this week of plans to build some 1,300 new apartments in its capital city triggered a fresh storm of protest, with P.A. negotiator Saeb Erekat calling for “dramatic international action for immediate recognition of the Palestinian state,” with east Jerusalem as its capital.

As with previous such announcements, the Obama administration State Department censured Israel for “unhelpful” activity.

Obama joined the criticism, saying in Jakarta that “each of these incremental steps can end up breaking trust” between the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

Palestinians welcomed the president’s comments. “Obama leads world chorus against Israel plan for Jerusalem,” ran the headline over the Palestinian news agency Ma’an’s report on the issue.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations in New York on Monday, Nov. 8, 2010. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu in New York on Thursday, echoed the criticism.

Speaking in Washington during a video linkup with P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad Wednesday, she and called the housing plan “counterproductive to our efforts to resume negotiations between the parties.”

From Israel’s perspective, it is the administration’s stance on building in Jerusalem that is complicating the situation, by taking positions that buttress the P.A. in its refusal to return to talks unless Israel backs down.

“Jerusalem is not a settlement,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office retorted in a statement hours after the president’s remarks, repeating an assertion he has come to use frequently over the two years since Obama took office.

Israel sees no link between the peace process and its development plans in Jerusalem,” the statement read. “All Israeli governments in the past 40 years have built in all parts of the city.”

Israel has never accepted the notion that any part of Jerusalem constitutes a settlement – a term generally used to describe towns and villages built by Israelis on territory it captured from Jordanian and Egyptian control in 1967.

Jerusalem was left divided between Israeli and Jordanian administration after the 1948 war that followed Israel’s declaration of independence. It was reunited under Israel during the Six Day War 19 years later and no Israeli government has opposed construction work in the city since then.

“Obama’s stance on Jerusalem was unprecedented in U.S.-Israel relations,” Jonathan Tobin, executive editor of Commentary magazine, wrote in an article Tuesday.

“[A]lthough the United States had never recognized Israel’s annexation of the eastern part of the city in 1967, it had also never treated the building of Jewish neighborhoods there as a point of dispute between the two countries in this manner.”

The international community at large does not recognize Israel’s ownership of the areas formerly under Jordanian occupation (although Jordan’s control of those areas was itself deemed illegal, with Britain and Pakistan alone endorsing it).

Irreconcilable claims

Israel claims historical links to Jerusalem going back 3,000 years, when the biblical King David made it the capital of his kingdom. Israeli governments of all political hues have declared it to be the “eternal, indivisible” capital of the Jewish state.

Muslims conquered Jerusalem in the 7th century and two mosques were subsequently built on the site of the ancient Jewish Temple. Muslims revere one of the two, the al-Aqsa mosque, as the third holiest site in Islam.

The P.A., with the backing of the Islamic world, wants at least some of Jerusalem – including the area of greatest religious significance, the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site – as its future capital.

Palestinians wave PLO flags outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City. (AP Photo)

The city’s future is one of the “final status” issues considered so thorny that the architects of the landmark Oslo peace accords set them aside for future negotiation.

Almost two decades later, there is little sign that the two sides are any closer to reconciling deep differences over the issue.

Under U.S. pressure, Netanyahu last year declared a 10-month freeze on building in any settlement on the disputed West Bank. That ban expired at the end of September and Washington wants Israel to reimpose it. The P.A. has refused to resume U.S.-brokered negotiations unless it does.

Even if the moratorium had been extended in September it would not have prevented the housing plan at the center of this week’s controversy, as Israel had not included Jerusalem in the ban in the first place.

“There has never been a freeze on construction in Jerusalem and there never will be such a freeze,” cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser told Israel radio on Wednesday. “That has been the policy of Israeli governments for 40 years.”

U.S. Jewish groups across the political spectrum also entered the debate.

The Zionist Organization of America said Israel had every right to build in eastern Jerusalem.

“Be it noted – eastern Jerusalem is the historic Jerusalem, the site of Jewry’s ancient capital twice in biblical times and the location of all of Jerusalem’s Jewish holy sites,” national president Morton Klein said in a statement.

“The western half of Jerusalem is a thriving metropolis and great triumph of Zionist initiative and development – but it is not the historic portion of the city. It is not the Jerusalem repeatedly mentioned in the Jewish holy books and throughout history. The eastern half of Jerusalem is that Jerusalem.”

The left-wing Jewish organization, J Street, called on Israelis and Palestinians “to stop counterproductive unilateral actions” and return to negotiations.

J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami said he was confident that the neighborhoods where the newly-announced building is to take place would be included within Israel’s borders once those borders were finalized. But until such time, he said, Israel should delay construction in the disputed areas “in the interest of its long-term security and survival as a democracy and as the homeland of the Jewish people.”

‘Bid to outflank Israel

Heritage Foundation scholar James Phillips urged the Obama administration Wednesday to block any attempt to secure U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood by making it clear it would veto any such move if brought to the Security Council.

“Absent clear evidence of American opposition, the Palestinian Authority and its Arab allies are likely to pursue this perceived opportunity to outflank Israel at the United Nations and bolster their efforts to isolate and de-legitimize Israel,” he said.

As previously reported, one option being considered by P.A. officials is to bypass the Security Council -- and the risk of a veto -- by way of a little-used mechanism that refers a matter to the U.N. General Assembly in cases where differences within the Security Council prevent it from acting.  

The Palestinian cause has significant support in the General Assembly, where two sympathetic blocs, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement, together hold a majority of seats.

The State Department has said that  pursuing U.N. support for an independence declaration “doesn’t solve the conflict,” and that that P.A. should return to negotiations.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow