Reporting from Jerusalem — By drawing a line against expansion of Israeli housing units in Jerusalem, the Obama administration is confronting a policy that enjoys a strong consensus among Israelis: the effort to ensure that the city remains united and under their control.
The fight over who will control Jerusalem has always been one of the thorniest issues between Israelis and Palestinians, who both claim the city as their capital. U.S. officials reacted with fury last week to a decision to build 1,600 housing units in an area of contested East Jerusalem, a move that threatened to derail American efforts to relaunch peace talks.
But focusing the debate on Jerusalem may actually prove to be of domestic political benefit for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Even many Israelis who otherwise oppose the government's settlement activity in the West Bank see nothing wrong with building homes for Jews in parts of Jerusalem that were seized during the 1967 Middle East War.
"For Netanyahu, this is the best issue you could have given him," said Efraim Inbar, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, who said the prime minister could emerge politically stronger by refusing American pressure to limit or temporarily delay housing construction in East Jerusalem.
"Jerusalem touches an important nerve for so many Jews that they would support the government, even in a confrontation with the U.S.," Inbar said. "Even if it causes damage, sometimes you have to draw a red line."
He said about 70% of Israelis support a "united Jerusalem" under Israel's control, according to polls he has conducted.
"Americans fell for the trap and the trap is Jerusalem," said Gershon Baskin, head of the left-leaning Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information.
Despite the tension between the two allies, the U.S. effort to launch indirect peace talks appeared to be getting back on track Friday. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cited unspecified signals from Israeli officials, and the Obama administration's Middle East peace envoy, George J. Mitchell, was preparing to return to the region.
American officials say that, in deciding to challenge Jerusalem construction, they were guided not by how the move might affect Israeli domestic politics but by the long-held U.S. government view that building in the disputed city prejudges the result of peace negotiations, antagonizes the Palestinians and undermines prospects for a settlement.
Privately, some U.S. officials question whether Israeli public support for construction in Jerusalem is as uniform as advocates contend. They say polling on the question has been spotty.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem after the 1967 war and dramatically expanded Jerusalem's borders to include the Old City and villages and land formerly under Arab control.
Over the decades, Israel has built large housing projects on mostly empty tracts of that land, both inside the expanded city limits and beyond the outskirts. The Ramat Shlomo project in northeastern Jerusalem is a cluster of several dozen apartment buildings that sprouted on empty land over the last decade, but with the high birthrates of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community living there, the subdivision now butts up against a Palestinian neighborhood.
Jewish families also have moved into traditionally Palestinian neighborhoods such as Silwan and Sheik Jarrah. Typically, such families occupy a single house or apartment building, often guarded by Israeli police or private security, amid a sea of Palestinian residents. Onthe Mount of Olives the lone Jewish home is easily identifiable by the billboard-sized Israeli flag flapping on the roof.
In 1980, the Israeli government formally annexed the eastern portions of Jerusalem and declared the city, including the parts it captured in 1967, as its capital. The United States, the United Nations and most of the international community never recognized the moves.
Because some housing projects have grown so large, it is widely believed that many would remain part of Israel under a future peace deal, probably as part of a land exchange with Palestinians. But until a deal is reached, Palestinians complain, the "Judaization" of East Jerusalem is unfair and accuse Netanyahu's right-wing coalition of accelerating such efforts at a time when there have been no peace talks.
"This government is more aggressive than any other Israeli government," said Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib. "It is speeding up efforts to turn Jerusalem into a Jewish city by changing facts on the ground and restricting the presence of Palestinians in the city."
The Jewish population of East Jerusalem has grown from almost nothing before 1967 to 200,000 today. The Palestinian population, which was about 66,000 in 1967, is now about 270,000.