It was "unprecedented" allright -- but not in the way that you think

05/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Dr. Charles G. Cogan Associate, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School

Why is the United States so worked up about the creation of 1,600 new housing units within an exclusively Jewish area in what William Kristol, with characteristic désinvolture,* calls "North Jerusalem"?
Whether by design or subconscious emotion, the Obama Administration's reaction goes back to that moment in 2009 when Israel "sandbagged" the U.S. into implicitly taking East Jerusalem out of the negotiating equation.
You will recall Hillary Clinton's categoric statement that no new settlements or expansion of existing ones would be acceptable to the U.S. This was followed by Benjamin Netanyahu's offer to freeze settlement construction (with some caveats) for a 10-month period - excepting East Jerusalem however. In effect, the U.S. backed down, while lauding, through the voice of the same Ms. Clinton on October 31, 2009, the Israeli offer as "unprecedented." Arab opinion was aghast.
Now, however, comes another opportunity, an opportunity to set things straight. The exclusively Jewish area (Ramat Shlomo), is described as being "a few yards" inside East Jerusalem, but it is nevertheless in East Jerusalem and therefore part of "territories" from which Israel forces were summoned by UN Security Council Resolution 242 to leave following their conquests in the Six Day War of June 1967. Though Israel six years later "annexed" the part of Jerusalem (East Jerusalem) occupied by Jordan prior to the war, this action has never been accepted, either by the U.S. or the internatonal community.
Therefore, East Jerusalem remains disputed territory and subject to "final status" negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. That is not, however, the way Mr. Netanyahu and the members of his hard-line coalition see it. To them, Jerusalem must remain undivided and excusively in the hands of...Israel.
The Middle East Quartet (the U.S., the U.N., the E.U. and Russia) met today in Moscow and urged the Government of Israel to "freeze all settlement activity." The Quartet, which included Hillary Clinton as the U.S. representative, set a bold target for a final deal with the Palestinians by 2012. Condemming the new settlement plan, the Quartet noted that Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem was not recognized by the International Community, and the issue had to be resolved through negotiations.
It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will stand firm on the Ramat Shlomo dispute and thereby re-inject East Jerusalem back into the negotiations, or will find a way, as has happened so many times in the past, to back off from the issue.

*Désinvolture is an untranslatable French word that is somewhere between insouciance and arrogance.

Editor's Note: Charles Cogan was the chief of the Near East South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from August 1979 to August 1984. From September 1984 until July 1989 he was CIA Chief in Paris. He is currently an Associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School. His most recent book, "La République de Dieu," (Éditions Jacob-Duvernet, 2008), is a collection of essays on the idea of God; on evangelism ("La République de Dieu"); on Islamic fundamentalism ("L'Islam médiéval"); followed by chapters analyzing a number of conflicts between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world.