The dust has not settled from the Biden-Ramat Shlomo incident.
Early signs are that the Israeli government is not complying with American demands. There has been no cancellation of the planning decision to build 1,600 new apartments in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, and the prime minister has reiterated his intention of continuing to build in neighborhoods throughout the city. Most of the vacant land is in the neighborhoods that the Obama administration considers to be non-Kosher, but new planning approvals and building continue.
Special Envoy George Mitchell has delayed a visit meant to promote the start of negotiations. While Americans may see that as a sanction or a warning to Israel, it may also be viewed as an American surrender to Middle Eastern realities. Insofar as the White House was standing against the expectations or desire of both Israelis and Palestinians, perhaps its people have come to realize that there is not much point at beating a dead horse.
Israel's lack of enthusiasm for negotiations is well known. The Palestinians' can be inferred from their insistence on conditions they know Israel would not accept, as well as from the reality of a Palestine divided between Fatah and Hamas, West Bank vs Gaza, with the Fatah regime hanging on only with Israeli, Jordanian, and American help, more than a year beyond the end of its term, with no election in sight.
What we are seeing is the result of several violations of the political norms that demand moderation.
Israel went a step too far in announcing construction as a greeting for the Vice President. The White House earlier went a step too far in demanding a construction freeze in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. It now may again be going a step too far by demanding a cancellation of the planning for Ramat Shlomo, as well as other steps, to build confidence, that Israel had earlier rejected. Israel went a step too far by including Rachel's Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs on a list of national heritage sites. Palestinians and other Muslims went a step too far by calling for demonstrations against what they called an insult to their religion, overlooking that Jews also have claims to those places, and that nothing in the declaration about Israel's heritage sites threatened Muslim rights. Now Palestinians and other Muslims are going another step too far by protesting the resanctification of a historic synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City which Jordanians had destroyed.
The White House does not monopolize American media or public opinion. Several commentators have accused the president and his advisers of going a step too far. Prominent among them is an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that contrasts the administration's shrillness toward Israel with its softness on Iran and Syria. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3862914,00.html
There is tinder afoot. The Passover holiday is only two weeks away. It is a time for Jews to come to Jerusalem and visit the Old City. Two thousand years ago it was the occasion when Jesus went a step too far when he challenged Jewish and Roman authorities in the same season. Josephus describes mass pilgrimages that entailed sacrifices of a quarter million birds and animals on the altars of the Temple. It was not a time for proclaiming ideas that would unsettle all those people crowded together in a context of religious fervor.
Palestinian and other Muslim leaders are inciting their communities with the claim that the consecration of the synagogue is a step in the direction of destroying their holy mosques and building a Jewish Temple on their site. Their justification, for what it is worth, is that a fringe element, more nationalistic than religious, has proclaimed an "International Temple Mount Awareness Day", in order to celebrate their plans to build a Temple. For the nth time, Israeli authorities have rejected their application to lay a cornerstone, and prominent rabbis have repeated their theological prohibition against Jews visiting the Temple Mount.
Hopefully the dust will settle, with outcomes less profound than on another Jerusalem Passover all those years ago.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem