I've left the escalating feud over Israeli settlements uncommented upon so far, but the US has now warned Israel that any attempt to expand settlement activity in the so-called E--1 corridor (between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim) would be "extremely damaging" and "corrosive." This follows by less than a week US warnings against construction of apartments on the site of the Shepherd Hotel in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah district, a move which led to sharp reactions on the part of Bibi Netanyahu and the rather odd idea on the part of Avigdor Lieberman to have Israeli embassies abroad circulate a photo of Adolf Hitler. The reasons for the latter: it's a photo of Hitler with Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the deposed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, taken in 1941; the Mufti was the Palestinian nationalist the British first made and later unmade Mufti, and he was associated, apparently, with the property under debate.
Now, as Marc Lynch noted a couple of days ago in a catalog of commentary by Israel's supporters declaring Obama's policy on settlements a failure, what he calls "concern trolling on the settlements," the rush to declare the policy a failure suggests that in fact the policy has hit a nerve. For those who came in late or aren't totally immersed in the issue, I'd like to suggest just why these two issues are striking so close to the nerve.
First, Sheikh Jarrah. Israel has long insisted that East Jerusalem was annexed in 1967 and that it has the right to build Jewish housing anywhere. As many commentators have noted, Netanyahu's comments that Arabs could freely buy land in West Jerusalem was simply not true, either through deliberate misstatement, ignorance, or a highly technical reading of the law. (Non-Jews cannot buy state land and most of the land in pre-1967 Israel is technically state land. But the fact of the matter is that except for a few rare cases where the building was in particularly sensitive areas (the Muslim quarter of the Old City, the Arab village of Silwan), the US has generally looked the other way on Jerusalem construction. But Sheikh Jarrah is a middle class, rather up-market section of mostly Arab East Jerusalem. As the US has noted, it would change the demographic makeup of the area; it is also the case that if there ever is a decision to create the capital of a Palestinian state in part of Arab Jerusalem, the general area north of the Old City extending up to Sheikh Jarrah would be the logical place. So the US is crying foul because of the potential for changing the bargaining table for future end-status negotiations.
The E-1 corridor is explosive in other ways. Beginning in 1967, Israel began building up Jewish suburbs over the Green Line and in the former no-man's lands, first on the north and west, then to the south. In Netanyahu's previous term as Prime Minister he authorized the building of Har Homa, which filled in the southeastern flank. The big settlement bloc at Maaleh Adumim east of Jerusalem is still separated from other Jewish suburbs by Arab suburbs and villages. Filling in the E-1 corridor would complete the jigsaw puzzle and surround Arab East Jerusalem and its outlier villages with Jewish suburbs, and would place a large Israeli population astride the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It's a classic effort to change facts on the ground, foreclosing possible future compromises, and the US recognizes it for what it is.
The fact that the US has seemingly decided to lay down the law on these two critical issues and has also made clear that it considers East Jerusalem occupied territory is what seems to have surprised Netanyahu and set off much criticism domestically here of Obama's policies. But it really amounts to actually insisting on what US policy has long been: that the settlements change facts on the ground that should be left for a final settlement.
For map lovers, by the way, I should mention our colleagues at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, who share our building at MEI though they are not organically linked with us; it's led by Ambassador Phil Wilcox and publishes the Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, edited by the redoubtable Geoffrey Aronson. They produce some of the most detailed maps around, and make them available for viewing online.