Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman went further still. Rejecting any demands that Jews refrain from building houses in East Jerusalem, he asked, "Can you imagine if they told Jews in New York they could not build or buy in Queens?"
All of these counterattacks are, at best, disingenuous. This is no family squabble to be toned down at the dinner table; the expansion of housing is no zoning decision; analogies between East Jerusalem and Queens are preposterous.
It is worth noting, for instance, that every nation or international entity that has taken a position on the issue—except for Israel—regards East Jerusalem, at least formally, as "occupied territory."
Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, but no other country recognized the move. U.N. Resolution 478, passed soon after, declared the annexation to be in violation of international law and thus "null and void." (The Security Council passed the resolution with no dissent; even the United States merely abstained.)
Most observers believe that if there ever is an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, it will turn over all, or very nearly all, of Jerusalem to Israeli control. Few Israelis would accept a treaty that didn't. However, this is a bargain to work toward—not to assume as a given, before serious talks have started.
The problem goes beyond legal niceties. U.S. envoy George Mitchell was on the verge of starting "indirect" talks between Israelis and Palestinians, shuttling between the two, at least initially. The talks were quietly supported by Saudi Arabia, whose rulers want to check the regional ambitions of Iran, which uses (and supplies) Hezbollah and Hamas as its surrogates. A convergence of interests between Israel and Arab moderates—among whom can be numbered Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad—would tilt the regional balance away from Iran. This tilt could help in the campaign to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons—and perhaps solidify support for U.S. and NATO policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
However, this entire chain depends on one critical link: the appearance of a genuine and promising movement toward an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. For their own standing in the rest of the Arab world and among their own potentially volatile populations no Arab country can afford to get too cozy with the United States, and especially not with Israel, as long as that link is severed.
By continuing to expand in East Jerusalem, the Israeli government's leaders demonstrate that they are not interested in a real peace. By doing so while simultaneously snubbing Vice President Biden (whose support for Israel is longstanding and undisputed), they are putting both the United States and themselves in an untenable position.
President Obama is forced to take one of two steps. Either he backs down and accepts what Israel does—in which case he loses credibility as an honest broker, and the United States loses power as a dominant player in Middle East politics—or he steps up pressure against Israel, in which case the (current) Israeli leaders stiffen their necks more tightly, and the region's anti-Israeli, anti-Western militants, sensing weakness, step up their aggression.
Meanwhile, too many of Israel's most outspoken supporters in Congress—who compete at AIPAC's annual conferences to see which of them can be more pro-Israel than the average Israeli—only encourage the Israeli right-wingers to stick to their guns (on the premise that their friends will ensure America keeps its aid flowing and its head bowed) and thus do disfavor to Israel's longer-term interests. (Meanwhile, in another bit of bad timing, the next AIPAC conference takes place in Washington, D.C., this weekend.)