The US condemned it, the EU condemned it and the UK condemned it. “It,” of course, is the announcement of 1600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. Many reports claim Netanyahu was caught on the hop, meeting as he was with US Vice President Joe Biden to gear up for the announcement of proximity talks. Interior minster Eli Yishai even apologized for the distress the timing of the announcement caused. Not of course for the announcement itself, or the bad faith it – and the previous day’s announcement, of 112 units somehow exempt from Israel’s own limited moratorium, in the illegal settlement of Betar Illit – demonstrated. (Far from condemning that exemption, the US excused it.) Just for the bad timing: “‘If I’d have known, I would have postponed the authorization by a week or two since we had no intention of provoking anyone,’ Yishai said.“
An revealing transcript of a PBS item on this story covers the timing of both announcements, the implications for trust and the fact that far from being progress, the announcement of proximity talks is “a step backwards” away from direct negotiations, demonstrating just how little trust the Palestinians have in the current Israeli administration. Acknowledging this view, Gershon Baskin in the Jerusalem Post sees this as a potential virtue. Rather than one side producing a text to which the other side respond, the mediator – George Mitchell – writes the text. (Baskin cites examples of Sharon’s provocative Temple Mount visit in 2000 and the recent list of Jewish heritage sites as examples of how Israelis can be misunderstood by Palestinians. These were provocative, he says, but the targets were domestic political opponents, not the Palestinians. Domestic tension has also been suggested as the reason behind the announcement of the 1600 new units in East Jerusalem. Update, 10.30pm (GMT): Ynet reports Netanyahu warned Yishai to ensure “no surprises” ahead of Biden visit.)
It’s too early to say whether this is looking at things through rose coloured spectacles, a desperate attempt to save some diplomatic face after a year of disappointment following Obama’s Cairo Speech or a real chance for progess. But the real obstacle in all this is that Netanyahu’s coalition is secure – as long as he does nothing in respect of substantive peace talks. Since 1988 no Israeli government has lasted a full four year term. Analysts looking at the jockeying for position after the elections in early 2009 saw no reason for this one to be an exception. Real progress will need a different government coalition.