What did Prime Minister Netanyahu mean when he told the annual meeting of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) that construction in Jerusalem "in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution"? The statement was made at the start of Netanyahu's visit to Washington, where he had hoped to undo at least some of the damage to Israel's relations with the United States, caused by recent news of continued Israeli construction in East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu is a skilled politician and, as could be expected, his statement at the meeting is open to more than one interpretation. The optimist will latch on to Netanyahu's implied acceptance of the two-state solution, not a negligible matter these days, when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators cannot even agree to be in the same room and must instead revert to "proximity talks."
The more exacting among the Prime Minister's listeners may wonder about the true meaning of his words. Does he really believe that the two-state solution is possible without an agreement on how sovereignty over Jerusalem is to be divided between Israel and a future Palestine? Or perhaps he was hinting that such an agreement has already been reached and that Israeli construction falls within the outlines of this agreement?
The first possibility may safely be put to rest. The Prime Minister is not naive, and he knows that Jerusalem has been marked by all sides of the conflict as one of the core issues that must be resolved before any Israeli-Palestinian settlement is reached. He knows as well that the outline of the two-state solution assumes a partition of Jerusalem to accommodate two capitals.
One must conclude, therefore, that the Prime Minister had in mind the second possibility. In other words, he has already determined what the future borders of Israeli Jerusalem would be and he intends to continue construction in accordance with these borders. Indeed, Netanyahu told the AIPAC meeting that Israel's contested construction projects are located in neighborhoods that "everyone knows will be part of Israel in any peace settlement." But if this is the case, the question must be asked: what are the borders observed by Netanyahu and by what process were they determined?
Are neighborhoods like Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah and Ras el-Amoud, where Israeli construction is moving apace, among the areas known to be "part of Israel in any peace settlement"? And who are the people who know these mysterious borders? Have the Palestinians given their consent, as implied by Netanyahu, or were the borders determined by the Likud's Central Committee? Moreover, if there are areas of East Jerusalem that even Netanyahu believes will be outside Israel in a future peace settlement, how come he and his ministers swear in the name of an "eternally united Jerusalem"?
If Israel claims the right to behave in Jerusalem as if a settlement has been reached and ratified, why doesn't it allow the Palestinian Authority to do the same, at least in neighborhoods like Kafr Aqab and the Shuafat Refugee Camp, which Israel has placed behind the separation wall, in appalling neglect, and where it no longer sees itself as bearing any responsibility?
Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is hardly the innocent activity Netanyahu was portraying to the AIPAC meeting. It is the clearest expression of Israel's aggressive, unilateral approach to Jerusalem, and it is being pursued by settlers as well as municipal and government agencies with the goal of creating facts on the ground that would block an agreed settlement in Jerusalem. In the short run, it has driven Palestinian President Abas to cancel the "proximity talks."
Regrettably, one must conclude that at a time when Israeli and Palestinian leaders are called to make difficult and essential decisions, Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to hide behind hollow slogans. The future of Jerusalem--all of it--must be resolved around the negotiating table. Israel's unilateral annexation of Jerusalem cannot stand, and Netanyahu's attempt to deny the depth of the conflict over sovereignty in Jerusalem will not only undermine the success of any future negotiation; it will increasingly damage the chances that the sides will even agree to start the discussion.