Talks Hit a Rock Called East Jerusalem

SILWAN, East Jerusalem — The sound of stun grenades and gunfire resounded through this embattled Palestinian neighborhood. Amidst increased tension over plans to tighten Israel’s grip over the occupied eastern part of the city, Israeli border police and Palestinian youths confronted each other all through Sunday night. Dozens of Palestinians were wounded, mostly from tear gas inhalation; six policemen were hurt by stones.

More than ever, Jerusalem is the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. But, what worries Israelis more is another divide. Not simply a rift, but a "tectonic rift," is how Israel’s Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren is describing the U.S.-Israeli relationship. 

Oren gave his bleak assessment while back in Jerusalem to brief top Foreign Ministry officials in preparation for a White House encounter next week between President Barack Obama and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

According to one Israeli diplomat who took part in the internal briefing, Oren said that relations with the U.S. could not be defined as being in a crisis, "because a crisis has ups and downs. Generally it fades away." Rather, he stressed, the U.S. and Israel "are now in a state of tectonic rift, like continents drifting apart."

Contrary to his predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Obama is not motivated by historical and ideological sentiments towards Israel, but by "cold U.S. interests and considerations," was Oren’s reported blunt analysis. 

While he noted that his access to senior White House staff remains "good," he was finding it hard to sway the President. "And, this is a one-man show," Oren was quoted as saying. 

The President’s position has clearly been affected by the reports he has had from his special envoy to the region, Sen. George Mitchell, who is said to be "frustrated" by Netanyahu’s stance in the ‘proximity’ talks with the Palestinians which the presidential envoy is conducting. 

The daily Ha’aretz quotes a senior U.S. Administration official as saying that Mitchell is interested in seeing "more seriousness" in the talks that are slated to come to grips with the core issues of the conflict. "We want things to move faster. To date, there has been insufficient progress," the senior U.S. official is quoted as saying. In four rounds of shuttle diplomacy between Ramallah and Jerusalem, the Palestinians have presented "far more detailed positions than Israel," the official added. 

Instead of grappling with the central issues of borders, refugees and Jerusalem, so far Netanyahu is said to have opted to focus on relatively marginal issues like water, economic relations between Israel and the future Palestinian state, and the development of "a culture of peace" in Palestinian society. 

Mitchell begins his fifth round of talks on Thursday. He is likely to encounter another obstacle in his peace-making bid. 

The Israeli-run Jerusalem’s District, Planning and Building Committee is on the verge of approving an unprecedented master plan for the city. The plan calls for the expansion of Jewish neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem, a move that would involve major building on privately owned Palestinian lands. 

Israeli Mayor Nir Barkat has also ordered adjustments to the blueprint plan so as to enable the "expansion of a Jewish presence," particularly here in Silwan, at the heart of the so-called Holy Basin adjacent to the walled Old City. 

Although the master plan calls for the area to be categorized a "national park," it allows for the Jewish settlement of Ir David here at the heart of Silwan to be expanded. Already last week, the city hastily approved Barkat’s plans to raze 22 Palestinian homes in Silwan’s Al-Bustan quarter. 

The Obama Administration has repeatedly made plain to Netanyahu that it "expects" him to prevent any change in the status quo in Jerusalem until completion of the negotiations on a final Palestinian-Israeli peace. 

In parallel to this deepening political rift between the two allies, it is notable that the security relationship is thriving. 

A source in the Israeli Defense Ministry told IPS that Israel was "entirely satisfied" with the state of the strategic dialogue between the two countries, which is designed to ensure Israel’s technological military edge over its neighbors. 

Fresh from talks with his Israeli counterpart in Tel Aviv, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told the Aspen Security Forum this week that he believes the U.S. and Israel are "in sync" with their current policies. 

Militarily synchronized maybe, much less so politically though — as Ambassador Oren has been making plain to Israeli decision-makers. 

Netanyahu, for his part, in recent meetings with EU diplomats, has been cagey about whether or not he will extend the partial moratorium on settlement building in the occupied West Bank. The Israeli leader declined to make any clear statement on whether the self-imposed settlement freeze would go on beyond its September deadline. 

If Netanyahu’s intent is merely to block the Mitchell mission from being fulfilled, what worries Israel is that Obama will lose patience and announce his own parameters of a U.S. peace plan. 

Then, the Israeli fear is that the "tectonic rift," still underground, could erupt to the surface.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.