Australian mainstream newspaper dares to say a few things about East Jerusalem

For the Sydney Morning Herald, yesterday’s editorial is pretty strong. A sign, perhaps, that the Zionist lobby isn’t always running the agenda in the corporate media:

Stephen Smith, the Foreign Minister, is right to be outraged by Israel’s announcement last week of plans for 1600 houses for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem. Venturing beyond Australia’s usual safe diplomatic language on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Smith called it “a bad decision at the wrong time” and “not a helpful contribution to the peace process”. The timing – just as Joe Biden, the US Vice-President, arrived in Israel to help restart peace talks – could hardly have been worse. Smith was still smarting from unresolved tensions with Israel over the use of forged Australian passports in the assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai, widely believed to be the work of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. Even more than that episode, the tactless announcement over East Jerusalem highlights Israel’s apparent disregard for the role of goodwill in relations with even its closest allies.

Palestinians see East Jerusalem as their future capital, should a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict ever come to pass. Yet the housing plan is just one more event in a process by which the Israeli government has been busily remaking East Jerusalem in Israel’s own image, often disregarding Arab heritage. Jewish tourist parks, conservation areas and archaeological digs have sprouted in Palestinian districts. There are reports that Israel plans to build another 50,000 housing units in East Jerusalem over the next few years. Shocked, angered and embarrassed enough just by hearing of the plan for 1600 houses, Biden condemned it as “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now”.

The undermining was a product of the inability of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to control his coalition of right-wing and religious parties since he took power a year ago. The housing announcement came from Eli Yishai, the Interior Minister, who is head of the right-wing Sephardic-Orthodox party, which champions Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. Israel’s defence ministry quickly deplored the announcement as “unwarranted”. Yet however deep the divisions are among Israelis themselves, Netanyahu’s failure at least to reprimand his minister publicly leaves questions over how serious he is about pushing ahead with a peace deal.

The affair has harmed prospects for the so-called “proximity talks”, in which Israelis and Palestinians are to meet separately with American mediators. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, has threatened to pull out, saying Palestinians have been “given the finger by Netanyahu”. Since late 2008, Australia has supported a freeze on Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. We must now follow this through and bring what pressure we can on Israel to grasp the goodwill so vital to the peace process.