Israel and America enjoy a deep and multi-layered friendship, but even the closest allies can sometimes disagree. Such a disagreement began last week during Vice President Joseph Biden’s visit to Israel, when a mid-level official in the Interior Ministry announced an interim planning phase in the expansion of Ramat Shlomo, a northern Jerusalem neighborhood. While this discord was unfortunate, it was not a historic low point in United States-Israel relations; nor did I ever say that it was, contrary to some reports.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had no desire during a vice presidential visit to highlight longstanding differences between the United States and Israel on building on the other side of the 1949 armistice line that once divided Jerusalem. The prime minister repeatedly apologized for the timing of the announcement and pledged to prevent such embarrassing incidents from recurring. In reply, the Obama administration asked Israel to reaffirm its commitment to the peace process and to its bilateral relations with the United States. Israel is dedicated to both.
We should not, however, allow peace efforts, or the America-Israel alliance, to be compromised by Israel’s policy on Jerusalem. That policy is not Mr. Netanyahu’s alone but was also that of former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Golda Meir — in fact of every Israeli government going back to the city’s reunification in 1967. Consistently, Israel has held that Jerusalem should remain its undivided capital and that both Jews and Arabs have the right to build anywhere in the city.
This policy certainly applies to neighborhoods like Ramat Shlomo, which, though on land incorporated into Israel in 1967, are home to nearly half of the city’s Jewish population. Isolated from Arab neighborhoods and within a couple of miles of downtown Jerusalem, these Jewish neighborhoods will surely remain a part of Israel after any peace agreement with the Palestinians. Israelis across the political spectrum are opposed to restrictions on building in these neighborhoods, and even more opposed to the idea of uprooting hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens.
Though not uncontested, Israel’s policy on Jerusalem did not preclude the conclusion of peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Nor did it prevent the Palestinians from negotiating with Israel for more than 15 years after the Oslo accords of 1993. Consistently, Israelis have demonstrated remarkable flexibility as well as generosity to any Arab leader genuinely offering peace.
Indeed, while maintaining the longstanding Israeli position on Jerusalem, the Netanyahu government has unilaterally frozen new construction projects in the West Bank and has removed dozens of roadblocks to allow Palestinian transportation and commerce. The Israeli government acknowledges that the Palestinians have their own stance on Jerusalem, which they will surely raise at the negotiating table.
Unfortunately, Palestinian leaders have balked at face-to-face negotiations, insisting on new preconditions, including the annulment of Israel’s Jerusalem policy. Recently they have encouraged violent demonstrations in the Old City, and have named a square in the West Bank city of Ramallah in honor of Dalal Mughrabi, a terrorist who in 1978 killed 38 Israeli civilians, among them 13 children, and an American photographer, Gail Rubin. Israel expects the Palestinians to stop such incitement and to cease sponsoring attacks against Israel’s legitimacy, like the deeply slanted Goldstone report on the Gaza war.
Despite these Palestinian actions, Israel wants to begin “proximity talks” — indirect negotiations involving United States intermediaries — which we hope will lead to a direct dialogue and a historic and permanent peace. But the only way to negotiate a peace agreement is to begin negotiations.
To achieve peace, Israel is asked to take monumental risks, including sacrificing land next to our major industrial areas and cities. Previous withdrawals, from Lebanon and Gaza, brought not peace but rather thousands of rockets raining down on our neighborhoods.
Though Israel will always ultimately rely on the courage of its own defense forces, America’s commitment to Israel’s security is essential to give Israelis the confidence to take risks for peace. Similarly, American-Israeli cooperation is vital to meeting the direst challenge facing both countries and the entire world: denying nuclear weapons to Iran.
Israel appreciates President Obama’s commitment to a comprehensive peace that guarantees Israel’s security and Jewish identity, and provides for a Palestinian state. To ensure that such a state is peaceful, Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that it must be demilitarized and that Palestinians must recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, just as Israel is asked to recognize a future Palestinian state as the nation-state of the Palestinians.
Though we may disagree with the White House at certain stages of the peace process, we must never allow such differences to obscure the purpose we share or to raise doubts about the unbreakable bonds between us.
During his visit, Vice President Biden declared that support for Israel is “a fundamental national self-interest on the part of the United States” and that America “has no better friend in the community of nations than Israel.” The people of Israel, in turn, view the strengthening of their relations with the United States as a paramount national objective. Because we share fundamental values — democracy, respect for individual rights and the rule of law — our friendship can sustain occasional disagreements, and remain unassailably solid.
Michael B. Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.