There's been much nonsense written about the government announcement that 1,600 apartments would be built in east Jerusalem. The timing was stupid, of course, since US Vice President Joe Biden was in town and didn't like the idea. Moreover, to have such an announcement just when indirect talks with the Palestinian Authority were about to start doesn't make Israel look helpful.
But that's about it. The action, if not the timing, was neither a provocation, the establishment of a "new settlement" nor proof that Israel doesn't want peace.
Anyone who knows Israel well understands this is what is called locally a fashla, a stupid mess-up as often happens with the government. Israel combines the candor of a First World country with the bureaucratic competence of a Third World one. The relevant office acted with a rosh katan (narrow vision) and neither considered the impact nor consulted those dealing with foreign policy. It was just thrilled to keep its constituency happy by announcing more housing.
The area in question is not some new settlement but a neighborhood about five blocks from the pre-1967 border. The haredim who live there have the highest birth rate in the country and thus desperately need new apartments.
At most, what this announcement shows is that Israel doesn't want or intend to give up all of east Jerusalem as part of a peace agreement. That's not exactly news.
Would it be better for the country's international position if the announcement had not been made? Yes. Because it allows the Obama administration (which needs excuses for its own failure to succeed at peacemaking) and the PA and Arab states (which need some rationale for their own policies) to blame Israel. But does it really change the course of a peace process going nowhere due to Palestinian intransigence on the real issues? Or does it make the PA and Arab states, which are supposedly salivating for a peace deal, change their minds and not make peace? In both cases, the answer is no.
So the timing of the announcement was stupid, but it was neither deliberate sabotage nor proof of disinterest in peace.
Let's consider the actual background of these recent events. Israel has announced since 1993, when the Oslo Agreement was signed, that it would continue building on existing settlements. The PLO accepted this framework and during the next 16 years the issue of construction on settlements never had any effect on the negotiations.
In January 2009, the PA stopped negotiations because Hamas attacked Israel from the Gaza Strip and Israel defended itself. Of course, Hamas is also the PA's enemy and the PA would be delighted if Israel destroyed that group. But for public relations purposes, the PA had to pretend inter-Palestinian solidarity.
A few weeks later, the new US president, Barack Obama, demanded that all construction on settlements stop. Israel eventually agreed but announced it would keep building in east Jerusalem. The US accepted that arrangement and even praised Israel's policy as a major concession.
But the PA still refused to return to negotiations. Was it because the construction offended it so deeply? No, it's because Fatah's radical leaders don't want to make a peace deal since they believe they can win total victory and destroy Israel. At the same time, the more moderate ones are too weak to make a deal because of Hamas and their own radicals.
IN SEPTEMBER 2009, Obama announced that within two months there would be full and final peace negotiations in Washington. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said yes; PA leader Mahmoud Abbas said no. Finally, after more than six additional months of effort, the PA deigned to talk, but only indirectly. Wait a minute! Supposedly, Israel doesn't want a deal and the Palestinians are desperate for one since, in Obama's words, their situation is "intolerable." So why is reality the other way around? There must be something wrong with that explanation.
Just as Obama unintentionally set back negotiations by demanding a full freeze, he and Biden have now done the same thing for indirect talks. But isn't it Israel's fault in the latter case for a stupid bureaucratic case of bad timing? Absolutely, yes. Yet US handling of the issue turned an annoying problem into an even worse problem for itself.
Why aren't Western countries and media saying that the PA's refusal to negotiate for 15 months shows that it doesn't want peace? After all, according to the commonly held view of the conflict, it should be demanding immediate direct negotiations to reach a comprehensive peace and a Palestinian state.
Instead, however, Abbas seized the opportunity of the apartment-building announcement to declare he wouldn't talk. Is he indignant? Is he upset? Does he feel betrayed? No, he's delighted to have an excuse to do what he wants - not negotiate with Israel.
And so Abbas gets to close down talks, keep his winnings and blame it on Israel. While Abbas and the PA don't agree with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on much, they do agree on one point: They (wrongly) think the West is abandoning Israel. So why shouldn't they reject peace and try to destroy weakened Israel (in Ahmadinejad's case) or merely wait until the West gives the Palestinians a state on a silver platter with no concessions on their part (Abbas's case)?
As Obama himself has indicated, there is no real hope for a comprehensive deal. The talks are mainly a PR gesture for everyone involved. Still, as long as much of the West keeps sending the wrong signals - it's all Israel's fault, no real pressure will be put on the PA - their policy will delay any progress toward peace despite their best intentions to promote it.