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Netanyahu Is the One Who's Dividing Jerusalem

Israel Harel
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu overlooking East Jerusalem, February 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu overlooking East Jerusalem, February 2020. Credit: DEBBIE HILL/AP
Israel Harel

On the eve of the 1996 election, a few months after Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, Benjamin Netanyahu’s situation was as bad as could be. His rivals, led by Shimon Peres, accused him of incitement that led to the assassination. Likud, and the rest of the right, went on the defensive.

The polls predicted a landslide victory for Peres. And then, in a last-ditch effort, the Australian mining magnate, Jewish philanthropist and influential Chabad rabbi Joseph isaac Gutnick launched a nationwide campaign with the slogan: “Peres will divide Jerusalem.” The gap between Netanyahu and Peres began shrinking daily.

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There were probably additional factors, such as the post-Oslo Accords Palestinian terror attacks, behind the voter shift from Peres to Netanyahu, but most analysts in the media and in academia alike have claimed ever since that the “Peres will divide Jerusalem” brought Netanyahu to power.

The biggest builders in East Jerusalem, the real bulldozers, were prime ministers of governments led by the Labor Party and the Labor Alignment. And Mayor Teddy Kollek. The pace of construction actually slowed under Likud rule – and not as a result of market saturation or a lack of demand. Even though everyone recognized that without massive, rapid building the city risked being divided again, Ariel Sharon abandoned the Caterpillar D9 bulldozers of the Labor Party. He and Ehud Olmert, Jerusalem’s mayor from November 1993 to February 2003, made do with relatively petite backhoes.

During his first term as prime minister (1996-99), Netanyahu built very little. After returning to power in 2009, he promised, particularly in emotional Jerusalem Day speeches, to fill the city with new Jewish neighborhoods that would guarantee that the united city would never again be divided. In practice, Netanyahu is preventing the construction of new neighborhoods. Progress is stalled on the expansion of Atarot, critical for protecting the city’s northeast rearguard. Netanyahu is preventing construction on land owned by Jews between the abandoned airport (why was it closed?) and the Atarot Industrial Zone. He is also blocking projects for which building permits have been issued, such as the Homat Shmuel (Har Homa) Dalet neighborhood. The only place that has seen significant construction is the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, and even this came only after political pressure from Haredi leaders, upon whom his coalition depends.

Ongoing construction work at Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish settlement in the Israeli-annexed eastern sector of Jerusalem, November 12, 2020.Credit: Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

The construction freeze in other sites and neighborhoods has continued even, it must be emphasized, during Donald Trump’s presidency, despite the fact that he and his administration had no reservations about Israel’s construction plans, certainly not with regard to Jerusalem.

It gets worse. Even though it was more or less expected that Trump, even if only on account of his criminal negligence in handling the coronavirus crisis, would lose his job, Netanyahu persisted with his policy even in the most strategic locations, such as Givat Hamatos, Atarot and area E1, the area between Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem.

Anyone who knows Netanyahu realizes that the root of these failures is not his flawed managerial skills (as were evident in his handling of the COVID-19 crisis). “He simply doesn’t want to close all options of making concessions in Jerusalem” says an influential figure in Jerusalem. That’s interesting. Only now, two months before the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, has the city launched a frantic attempt to advance work on a few of the sites that have been quiet for years. These efforts will most probably end, as in the past, in frustration. The distinguished fullback will continue to block them.

If we add to this the fact that it was only very recently, after a prolonged recess imposed by Netanyahu, that the Civil Administration approved the construction of 2,800 residential units in the entire area of Judea and Samaria (which may never get completed during Biden’s term in office), we get a concrete picture of the man who purports to be, like King Herod, the great builder of Judea and Jerusalem.

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