Jerusalem's best-laid plans
In addition to the settler homes sprouting up in abundance in and around East Jerusalem, there are innumerable plans in the offing by right-wing and other elements that threaten the Palestinian population. A sobering portrait in advance of Jerusalem Day next week
While he was conducting intensive negotiations with the Bush administration on the "road map," then-prime minister Ariel Sharon often invited over his friend Ze'ev Hever (Zambish ), who at the time was secretary general of the Amana settlement movement, and is seen by many as the "father" of the illegal outposts. So while the left hand was promising the Americans that Jerusalem was committed to the idea of regional peace, the right hand was busy with maps. Sharon personally coordinated with the settlers the timing of the establishment of scores of outposts, which so annoyed the U.S. administration.
The prime minister also bent over the maps with Col. Danny Tirza, planner of the separation-fence route, and specified exactly how to move the fence eastward and annex more Palestinian lands in the West Bank as a means of creating "facts on the ground," in advance of talks on a final-status agreement (in which Sharon did not believe and which he hoped would never take place ).
It's been some years since the philanthropists, rabbis and activists of the right-wing organizations that are working energetically to reinforce the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem have enjoyed direct and regular access to the Prime Minister's Bureau. Like Sharon, however, Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to postpone the inevitable for as long as possible. A declaration of general commitment to the two-state solution, proximity talks, maybe a Palestinian state in temporary borders - all these are liable, from his perspective, to effect a delay in negotiations on a final-status agreement and especially on the fate of Jerusalem.
However, ever since the Ramat Shlomo furor erupted, during the visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to Israel in March, it appears the game has changed. The prime minister and his people intend to use the little credit they still have with the American administration to try to rescue plans for construction in Jewish Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Green Line, such as Gilo and Pisgat Ze'ev, even if it comes at the expense of the continued Judaization of such Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan.
There is no better symbol of what is happening in East Jerusalem than the flag adorning Beit Yehonatan. It hangs from the roof, draped over all seven stories of the building and sharply distinguishing it from the surrounding structures. However, of late the flag has become tattered, wrinkled and torn; the inhabitants of the building are in no hurry to mend it. Possibly they have come to accept their approaching evacuation. On Wednesday the Jerusalem Magistrates Court once again rejected their petition. Apparently the desperate legal battle they have conducted will end in defeat.
Beit Yehonatan, is just one dot on the map of new Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, which features dozens of individual buildings and a number of complexes. Connecting these dots gives a clear picture of the effort the right is making to encircle the Old City with a ring of Jewish settlements. This effort is focused on two main tracks: One is purchasing Palestinian buildings and moving Jewish families into them; the other is initiating plans to construct Jewish neighborhoods in the heart of the Palestinian population.
"The year 2009 was our best year," declares Aryeh King, a settler spokesman and founder of the nonprofit Israel Land Fund, which strives to purchase available lands for Jews.
Meanwhile, Palestinians in the city see the ring around them tightening in a clear and acute way: From the south - the City of David national park in Silwan and the homes of settlers from the Elad association, which, if Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's plan is realized, will undergo a rapid Israelization process; From the east - the largest of all settler neighborhoods in the vicinity, Ma'aleh Zeitim (51 families in a complex surrounded by a wall, who will be joined by another 66 by the end of the year; plans for 104 additional housing units have also been submitted ). In the same area there is a Jewish presence surrounding the large Mount of Olives cemetery and at Rabbi Benny Elon's Beit Orot Yeshiva, which is slated to expand into a Palestinian neighborhood. From the north - despite the protests by the left, the Shimon Hatzadik neighborhood is going up in Sheikh Jarrah; 40 Jewish families are already living there.
On the drawing board are hundreds more plans for housing units in various stages of approval, behind many of which stand the American Jewish gambling mogul Irving Moskowitz. To the puzzle can be added the national park slated for the slopes of Mount Scopus, the government compound (police headquarters, the Justice Ministry ) and district court, a large hotel complex near the American Colony and more. In the meantime a purchasing campaign is also going on within the Old City walls, in the Christian and Muslim Quarters.
The heart of East Jerusalem, which until recently had been inhabited almost solely by Palestinians, is at the very least becoming a binational area.
'Layer after layer'
"The idea is to build layer after layer surrounding the center, like an onion," says settler activist King. "Why an onion? Because like an onion, the longer it is in the fire the sweeter it becomes - that's how Jerusalem is. The more pressure there is, the more good will come of it."
This week, ignoring the fact that Israel is currently fighting the Americans for permission to enlarge existing apartments in Gilo (which most of the world perceives as occupied territory ), King presented data from a study that suggests it is possible to build no fewer than 187,000 housing units (about the same number of units existing at present in the city ) in the open areas around East Jerusalem - from the Etzion Bloc to the outskirts of Ramallah. Untilthis plan is realized, King is busy buying land and settling Jews in areas like Anata and Beit Safafa. His detractors, even among the rightist organizations, say he is wasting energy on places that are lost causes, rather than concentrating on the main thing: construction around the Old City.
King himself does not give Netanyahu any credit for the success of the settlement enterprise. As far as he is concerned, the prime minister is only suspending and delaying plans. In fact, the activist sees the fact that Barack Obama is in the White House as an opportunity.
"We have a Muslim in the White House. Hussein Obama has a pro-Islamic and anti-American agenda. He wants to undermine America from within. Facing him in particular, Bibi [Netanyahu] could have stood up to him like a man," he says.
King is disappointed with the rightist ministers in the so-called forum of seven - Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Minister Without Portfolio Benny Begin, both members of Likud. To his mind, only one minister deserves respect for his contribution to the Judaization of East Jerusalem: Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas, who has done much to promote the settlers' plans and delay the Palestinians' building plans. "If he runs for prime minister," adds King, "I will vote for him."
Right-wing organizations estimate they need five to 10 years to change the reality irreversibly, as has happened in the large settlement blocs in the West Bank in the 17 years since the Oslo Accords. During the coming decade, the Jewish "belt" surrounding the historical basin in Jerusalem, whose center is the Old City, will be completed. Any future discussion of a permanent status agreement will have to take into account the facts that have been established on the ground.
These days, the right, despite its oaths of allegiance to the capital, is less interested in what is happening in the outlying Palestinian neighborhoods that were hastily annexed to Jerusalem after the Six-Day War. If ultimately the Clinton principle - Jewish neighborhoods to Israel, Arab neighborhoods to the Palestinians - is accepted and implemented, framers of the final status agreement will also have to take the new ring of settlement into account.
Time's on their side
Backed by substantial power and money, and a tail wind coming from the Jerusalem Municipality and from some key people in relevant government ministries, such as the Interior and the Housing and Construction Ministries - it appears that the right-wing groups have been feeling in general, at least until the Biden affair, that time is working in their favor. Now the organizations must devote a lot more energy to preserving what already exists.
Just this week, after a two-month freeze imposed after the Biden debacle, the regional planning and building committee has started to operate again. Netanyahu's bureau has assigned monitors to the committee, who will examine any plan liable to cause embarrassment to the state. Today, every proposal for construction in East Jerusalem goes through two bodies at least. Even plans that are relatively trivial from an Israeli perspective, such as those concerning housing units in Gilo or Pisgat Ze'ev, will not be brought up for approval at this time.
The municipal planning committee is also taking care not to embarrass the government with problematic plans; indeed, the smiles at committee meetings have been replaced by suspicion. The policy of demolishing illegal Arab homes in East Jerusalem has been put on ice, and in the past half year the municipality has not razed even one of those structures.
"According to assessments by the police, any eviction will be accompanied by extensive disturbances, which will spread beyond the immediate area," wrote Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch of Yisrael Beiteinu in response to Shas MK David Azoulay, who inquired about why the authorities are not carrying out demolition orders. The fear of having to pay an additional diplomatic price is serving to protect Palestinian homes in the city.
According to Col. (ret. ) Shaul Arieli, who was involved in drafting the Geneva Initiative, at some stage the Jewish settler presence in East Jerusalem will become "so dominant that the Palestinians will refuse a permanent status agreement in Jerusalem based on the Clinton guidelines. Then we will be facing a situation where we'll end up with nothing, because the situation will have necessitated international intervention or massive evacuations of Israelis.
The processes underway now are pushing Palestinians, in Jerusalem as well, toward the solution of a binational state. If these processes continue, the ability to divide the city physically will be nullified."
American and European diplomats in Israel have recently familiarized themselves with the planning bureaucracy in Jerusalem. Sometimes they come to the courts together with Palestinian families slated for eviction, or visit Palestinian protest tents scattered around the city. Haim Erlich, of the Ir Amim organization, which promotes Israeli-Paletinian coexistence in Jerusalem, has been closely following the building plans in East Jerusalem by means of a new geographic information system program, which facilitates analysis and management of geographical data.
"Now everything is stuck. No one is daring to move anything forward," says Erlich, adding that the government, which had given a free hand to the settlers, made a terrible mistake, and building problems in "Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan have caused Gilo and Ramat to grind to a standstill."
Erlich says the settlers have no real chance of advancing their plans further in light of external pressures: "They aren't reading the international map correctly, and haven't studied Bibi. He is spitting blood to get into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That is what is important to him."
For his part, King, as though sharing a secret, fires off statistics and names of future neighborhoods. In his opinion, all the right has to do is to change its tactics: "I won't say nothing has changed. Things that used to take a month now take two months, but we have new plans. They aren't [being submitted] under the name of Arieh King, but rather under the names of Abdullah and Mohammed, and they will be approved. What will they do now? Will they ask every Arab who he's submitting a plan for?"
Nevertheless, King admits, this is the time "to hold your nose, inhale and try to get as much as possible done until the situation changes." He predicts that several hundred housing units will be occupied by Jewish residents in the coming months, and plans that can no longer be stopped will proceed - such as for construction at the Shepherd Hotel, whose approval sparked American wrath a year ago.
This morning the right-wing newspapers were planning to publish advertisements for people willing to join a purchasing group in an East Jerusalem neighborhood, declaring: "This is the right time to invest in the future and invest in Jerusalem."