The Israeli government’s announcement in March that it would further expand East Jerusalem settlements was just the latest in a decades-old series of calculated slights to the United States.

Since 1967, virtually every time a U.S. envoy has arrived to discuss the fate of the West Bank or Gaza, the Israeli government of the day has bluntly shown who is really boss, usually with a carefully timed unilateral expansion of Israel’s presence in the occupied territories. Since the 1970s, Israel has illegally settled close to half a million of its citizens in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, not to mention building a barrier mainly inside the West Bank on Arab-owned land that is longer and taller than the Berlin Wall.

Given that for a year the Obama administration has sought a settlement freeze in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, it is impossible to interpret the latest announcement of settlement expansion in the city as anything but a provocation. (The alternative explanation -- that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannot control his own government -- cannot be taken seriously.) As if on cue, an obedient majority in Congress issued a letter demanding that there be no public discussion of U.S.-Israeli differences. This, however, has not ended the controversy.

Although this episode has revealed that some things never change, it has been unusual in the sense that U.S. administrations usually take great care to avoid offending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (known as AIPAC). Yet, this year, senior officials suggested that unconditional U.S. support for Israel, far from serving U.S. national interests, may in fact jeopardize them. The Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot reported that Vice President Joe Biden said as much to Netanyahu in March; the message was reiterated in a statement by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and in the congressional testimony of the head of the United States Central Command, General David Petraeus, who argued that “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples [in the region].”

This is nothing new. It has been true at least since the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the first Gulf War, when the last shred of strategic justification for extensive U.S. support for Israel disappeared. After 1991, as the U.S. military presence grew in the Middle East, Washington’s overt bias toward Israel became a growing liability for the United States.

The intense media coverage of the recent diplomatic crisis has largely obscured what is actually happening in East Jerusalem, where the controversy began. As usual, given the media’s obsession with U.S. and Israeli perspectives, there were few, if any, Palestinian voices to point out precisely what each new housing unit, each fresh expulsion of Arabs from their homes, and each new strategic colony in East Jerusalem means for the 200,000 Arabs who live in the city, for the future status of Jerusalem, and for the possibility of a resolution to this conflict.

One telling problem was the media’s widespread use of the Israeli terms “disputed” and “neighborhoods” to describe East Jerusalem's status and the illegal Jewish-only settlements proliferating there. There is nothing disputed about East Jerusalem’s status under international law as understood by every country besides Israel: it is universally considered occupied territory. Similarly, Israeli settlements in the parts of the city that lie across the Green Line are in clear contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids an occupying power from moving its own population into occupied territory.

Jerusalem is the slated location for the capital of an independent Palestinian state, and this is not a matter to be haggled over as far as the Palestinians and Arab and Islamic leaders are concerned. At least 40 generations of leading figures in Palestine’s and the Islamic world’s political, military, religious, and intellectual history -- ranging from generals in Saladin’s armies and Sufi saints to great scholars and distinguished judges -- are buried in the ancient Mamilla cemetery, located in present-day West Jerusalem. Part of this great historic landmark is now being excavated in order to pave way for a “Museum of Tolerance” to be built by the Los Angeles–based Simon Wiesenthal Center, despite the protests of the families of those buried there and of many leading Israeli academics and organizations. Its completion would erase not only part of Jerusalem’s Palestinian and Islamic heritage but also part of the heritage of all mankind that makes this city so important to the entire world.

Today, Jerusalem is the geographic center and communications hub of the West Bank. By walling the city off from its Arab hinterland and building fortresslike settlements in concentric rings around the city -- and, increasingly, within its remaining Arab neighborhoods -- Israel has succeeded in fragmenting and isolating Arab population centers within the city. These settlements also hinder the flow of north-south traffic through the West Bank, leaving Israel as the master of a terrain speckled with tiny Bantustan-esque islands of Palestinians.

One reason Israel continues to build settlements is that, according to the so-called Clinton parameters laid down in 2000, a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement would grant sovereignty over Jewish-occupied areas to Israel, and Palestinian-inhabited areas to the new Palestinian state. Indeed, well over a decade of failed negotiations have only led to an acceleration of Israel’s land grab in the Holy City. Israeli planners have spent this time pushing settlers into heavily Arab-inhabited areas of the city, such as Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, and Abu Dis, in order to create fresh “facts on the ground” -- a tactic used by the Zionist movement for over a century in order to obtain control over more and more of Palestine.

The Obama administration’s more robust reiteration of longstanding U.S. positions on settlement, occupation, and East Jerusalem has made the current Israeli government extremely uncomfortable. Moreover, these days, groups that unconditionally support Netanyahu’s policies, such as AIPAC, no longer have the following that they like to claim they do. It is worth noting that in addition to the increasingly vocal segments of the U.S. Jewish community willing to question such Israeli policies, 78 percent of Jewish voters supported Barack Obama in 2008 despite establishment Jewish groups’ clear preference for Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his wholesale support of the Likud Party’s agenda.

It is exceedingly important today that the U.S. government emphasize such bedrock principles as the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force, the illegality of settlement in all occupied territories, and the legally invalid nature of “actions taken by Israel, the occupying power, which purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem,” in the words of a June 1980 Security Council resolution. These are not simply elements of any just and lasting future resolution of the conflict; they are also pillars of a world order that rejects the law of the jungle and is not beholden to the distortions of a slick public relations machine. They are relevant whether or not the two sides are on the cusp of substantial final-status negotiations that address the issue of Jerusalem.

Many obstacles are keeping Israelis and Palestinians from reaching a final-status agreement. First among them is the U.S. government’s reluctance to allow Fatah and Hamas to establish a consensus political platform and produce a coalition government that can negotiate effectively. It is foolish to expect a weak and divided Palestinian polity to deliver a final settlement or stand by it. Ultimately, the Palestinians must resolve their own debilitating internal problems themselves, but the United States must cease placing diplomatic and legal obstacles in the way of such political reconciliation. Without it, there can be neither successful negotiations nor an agreement that has the slightest chance of obtaining legitimacy in the eyes of a majority of the Palestinian people.

When it comes to Jerusalem, a final-status negotiation that begins from the status quo -- the result of successive Israeli governments establishing settlements as faits accomplis -- will be unacceptable to any Palestinian leader. Even a return to the status quo ante of 2000 is insufficient, given Israel’s aggressive reshaping of Jerusalem’s surface and subterranean landscape since the 1980s. One need only walk through the streets of Jerusalem with a sense of what they once looked like to understand how takeovers of key buildings; strategically placed new housing developments, roads, and infrastructure; extensive archeological excavations; and the digging of a vast network of tunnels under and around the Old City were intended to fragment Arab East Jerusalem and permanently incorporate it into Israel.

In the end, only a negotiation in which all of Jerusalem is placed on the table will suffice. This is not only the right thing to do; such a posture is rooted in a solemn U.S. obligation made in the all but forgotten U.S. letter of assurances to the Palestinian delegation issued on October 18, 1991, at the outset of the Madrid-Washington-Oslo sequence of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. In it, the U.S. government declared that nothing should be done by either side that would “be prejudicial . . . to the outcome of the negotiations,” notably “unilateral acts that would exacerbate local tensions or make negotiations more difficult or preempt their final outcome.” If these words meant anything, they meant that the United States would oppose any act seeking to unilaterally resolve issues slated for discussion during final-status negotiations.

The expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem (described in the 1991 letter as “an obstacle to peace”) and the separation of the city from its Arab hinterland fit this category. Once the United States issued the letter, the Palestinian delegations to the 1991-93 Madrid and Washington negotiations, to which I was an adviser, insisted that keeping with the letter’s spirit meant resolutely opposing such incendiary acts. We argued that there was no point to negotiations if unilateral and irreversible Israeli actions were deciding the fate of the very lands, buildings, and hilltops at issue. And what was a letter of assurances worth if the U.S. government would not or could not give it teeth?

Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush failed to prevent settlement expansion and the closure and encirclement of East Jerusalem. In consequence, none of them resolved the issue of Jerusalem, and every one left the situation far more fraught than it had been when he entered office.

The biggest obstacle the Obama administration must now overcome is the legacy of these two decades of failed policies. If the president wants a successful outcome to any future negotiations, he should decisively reject the failed approach of his predecessors and resolutely stress the positions of every previous administration as laid down in Security Council resolutions and international law. Such a clean break from the past is not enough to ensure a rapid and successful resolution of the Jerusalem issue, but it is an essential step toward producing the lasting and equitable peace that the people of that city and the region deserve.

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  • RASHID KHALIDI is Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies, Columbia University and the author of Sowing Crisis: The Cold War & American Dominance in the Middle East.
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