U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to confront Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Israeli construction activity in East Jerusalem has been greeted by a hail of praise, especially from people impatient to proceed with peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The belief seems to be that meeting this issue head-on will accelerate progress toward an agreement ending a conflict that has festered for generations. The historical record suggests a different conclusion.
The assumption that a faceoff over construction in Jerusalem will advance negotiations has not been subjected to much scrutiny. But the last two decades show that progress has occurred not when this issue was put first, but when it was finessed and left for the final status negotiations on Jerusalem.
Consider this: If, 17 years ago, U.S. President Bill Clinton or Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat had insisted that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin freeze all settlement construction, including in Jerusalem, before Arafat would sit down with Rabin, there would have been no Oslo agreements. By Rabin's own account, in comments before the Knesset, Israel's parliament, he had to fudge the issue.
"I explained to the president of the United States," he said,"that I wouldn't forbid Jews from building privately in the area of Judea and Samaria ... I am sorry that within united Jerusalem construction is not more massive."
The same year as the famous handshake on the White House lawn, 1993, the Rabin government completed the construction of more than 6,000 units in the Pisgat Zeev neighborhood of East Jerusalem, out of a total of 13,000 units that were in various stages of completion in areas of the city that had been outside Israeli lines before 1967.
So Arafat did sit down with Rabin, even while Israel's construction in Jerusalem continued. And, on Sept. 13, 1993, the Oslo peace accord was signed -- by the same Mahmoud Abbas who refuses to sit down today. And on October 14, 1994, Rabin, who built homes for Jews in East Jerusalem, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Altogether, Israel completed 30,000 dwelling units in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem in the four years of Rabin's government. Even the Jan. 9, 1995, announcement of a plan to build 15,000 additional apartments in East Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the 1967 borders (especially Pisgat Zeev, Neve Yaacov, Gilo, and Har Homa) did not stop negotiations, which resulted in the Oslo II accord of September 28, 1995. Israeli construction continued while Abbas and Rabin signed an historic accord.
And what was the American policy toward Rabin's construction of Jewish homes in East Jerusalem? Mild annoyance.
On Jan. 3, 1995, the State Department spokesman said mildly, in response to the Rabin government's announcement of expanded construction, "The parties themselves ... have to judge whether it presents any kind of a problem in their own dialogue. The important thing is to continue to meet." The spokesman added on Jan. 10, 1995, "We admit that settlements are a problem, but we ... enjoin the parties to deal with these issues in their negotiations."