Anger builds over Israel housing

Reporting from Washington and Jerusalem Paul Richter -- With anger over Israeli building plans stoking tensions about the future of Jerusalem’s holy sites, violence spilled into the streets Tuesday in a string of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police that injured more than 100 people.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delayed a trip to the Middle East by the U.S. special envoy as Washington pressed the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to roll back construction of housing units in disputed East Jerusalem.

U.S. officials have been pressing Israelis and Palestinians to renew indirect peace talks, and have been urging Israel to restrain construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. They have described the announcement of plans to build 1,600 units in the Ramat Shlomo subdivision during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden last week as an insult.

In scenes reminiscent of past uprisings, dozens of Palestinian youths, some with scarves masking their faces, pelted police officers with rocks, blocked roads and burned tires in half a dozen neighborhoods around East Jerusalem.

Israeli police, who have been on high alert for days, responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades, witnesses said. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that nine police officers were among the injured.

Dozens of Palestinians were treated for tear-gas inhalation, and two men were hit in the face with rubber bullets, Palestinians said. Rosenfeld said 60 Palestinians were arrested.

Such clashes have been increasingly common in recent weeks as Palestinians have grown frustrated by the absence of peace talks and by Israeli expansion into Palestinian-dominated neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as well as other land that Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East War.

Palestinians fear that some Jewish groups will use the rededication this week of the Hurva synagogue, which was destroyed by Jordanian forces in the 1948 Arab- Israeli war, as an opportunity to also begin rebuilding a temple on the remains of the historic Second Temple.

Muslim groups called on Palestinians to converge on Jerusalem’s Old City in case Jewish extremists tried to storm the Al Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock, which are holy to Muslims, and lay a foundation stone for a new Jewish temple.

Israeli security officials downplayed concerns that the recent violence could spiral into a “third intifada,” or uprising.

Leaders of the Palestinian Authority have disavowed the use of violence, though several Palestinian leaders called upon their supporters to take part in Tuesday’s demonstrations.

For nearly a week, more than 3,000 Israeli police officers have been deployed to protect the city. Police set up barricades around the Old City gates Monday and restricted access for young men who could not prove they lived inside. Tourists were prohibited from entering the Temple Mount compound, police officials said.

Neither Israel nor Palestinian officials expressed much enthusiasm for the U.S. proposal to restart indirect talks. They agreed to take part, but viewed them as an effort by the Obama administration to show it was making progress in the Middle East.

From the U.S. side, the administration’s decision to strongly challenge the Netanyahu government this time has been driven in part by concerns that it cannot afford the perception that it has been pushed around in the Middle East and elsewhere, say U.S. officials and analysts.

The dispute over the Ramat Shlomo housing project clearly added to Palestinian tension over the holy sites. Officials and analysts on all sides were calculating who might stand to gain an advantage from the dispute.

U.S. officials said that although they were discussing issues with Israeli officials, they want a specific promise of action before the U.S. envoy for Mideast peace, former Sen. George J. Mitchell, is sent to the region.

Philip J. Crowley, the chief State Department spokesman, said Clinton had delayed a scheduled Mitchell trip to the region this week because “we thought it was important to be informed of Israeli positions on some of the issues that the secretary discussed with the prime minister” in a lengthy phone conversation Friday as Biden was leaving the region.

U.S. officials said they expect to hear soon from Netanyahu.

If Netanyahu weathers the current storm without giving in to U.S. demands, his political fortunes probably will rise in the short term. Last year, his government was emboldened after it refused to abide by U.S. calls for a total settlement freeze.

But a growing number of Israeli political analysts and government officials are expressing concern that the prime minister may have overplayed his hand. Several leading newspaper columnists on Monday stressed the importance of American military technology, loan guarantees and trade in supporting Israel’s economy and standard of living.

Israeli President Shimon Peres called on the Netanyahu government Monday to repair ties with the U.S.

“We cannot afford to unravel the delicate fabric of friendship with the United States,” he said.

One of the main goals of the Obama administration’s foreign policy has been to try to reduce threats from the Middle East by improving relations with the Muslim world.

Shibley Telhami, a specialist on Arab public opinion at the University of Maryland, said Arabs as a whole were “somewhat optimistic” about U.S. policy in the region six months into Obama’s term. But since then “the movement has been backwards,” he said, almost entirely because of the Arab-Israeli issue.

Arab diplomats say the United States has also not been seen as forceful in dealings with Lebanon, which has seen an increase in Syrian influence, or with Iran. The United States and Western allies have been pressuring Iran to halt its nuclear program, but they continue struggling to impose tough international sanctions against Tehran.

More broadly, Biden’s trip came after senior U.S. officials had been repeatedly rebuffed on overseas trips.

President Obama made little progress with the Chinese during his visit to Beijing in November. When Obama visited Saudi Arabia in June to raise money for the Palestinians, he was given a polite but firm no.

When Clinton visited Brazil this month to try to win support for tough new sanctions on Iran, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim announced in a public appearance with her that his country simply would not go along.

One senior U.S. official acknowledged that the tough U.S. position is not just about Israel and the settlements issue, but about “sending a message more broadly about what we’re willing to put up with. . . . This couldn’t continue.”

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator, said the policy has “clearly been informed by concerns about an image of vacillation and weakness.”

“If you can say no to a great power without cost, that ends up affecting the image and street credibility of the great power,” he said. “And in this region, street credibility is everything.”


Abukhater is a special correspondent.