Netanyahu Has No Choice but to Freeze East Jerusalem Building

The next time the Israeli government stands aside as settlers oust Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, the Americans will no longer accept the traditional answer - that this is a civil legal dispute.

"There is no way we will give Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] a license to build in East Jerusalem," the American official said with unconcealed anger. "Our letter will not mention, or even hint at, the explicit word 'Jerusalem.'"

The establishment of a Jewish compound near the Old City is upsetting the Arabs (not only the Palestinians ), and therefore the Americans, far more than the addition of a few apartments in a settlement on the outskirts of Ramallah. But U.S. President Barack Obama has come to realize that there is no chance Netanyahu will officially agree to a moratorium on construction in East Jerusalem for even a single hour.

jarrah - Amos Biderman - November 23 2010
Amos Biderman

The only arrangement that could, on a good day, satisfy both sides is real estate quiet in combustible areas. For example, the prime minister could ask Interior Minister Eli Yishai to instruct his officials to handle Jewish contractors' building plans at the same speed they handle permits for Arab contractors.

Even if Netanyahu does promise to cool the building plans in Har Homa and Ramat Shmuel ever so slightly, for the sake of building trust with the Americans (and the Palestinians? ), East Jerusalem will not be taken off the agenda. Experience shows this is the time when the family of American Jewish millionaire Irving Moskowitz, which flies the flag from the golden shores of Florida, and its Jerusalem branch, go into a trance. A few days after the first moratorium ended, rightist and Moskowitz associate Aryeh King announced plans to settle another 10 Jewish families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

The settlers are relying on a Supreme Court ruling handed down a few weeks ago, enabling the evacuation of the Palestinians living in the western part of the Jerusalem neighborhood. At the same time, the settlers associations are planning to put up new buildings on land purchased by Jews in the 19th century.

When news programs around the world broadcast footage of Israeli police officers throwing elderly Palestinian women onto the streets of Sheikh Jarrah (or Silwan ), Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres won't be able to recycle the explanation offered during the Ramat Shlomo crisis - when a housing project was announced during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel in March - i.e.: "This is a neighborhood that in any agreement will remain under Israeli sovereignty."

In the words of the attorneys general

The decision makers in Washington have read the opinions of two of Israel's former attorneys general - who stated the government can, and must, prevent provocations in Jerusalem. The first of them, Elyakim Rubinstein (now a Supreme Court justice ), based his opinion in 1997 on the recommendation of Shin Bet security service chief Ami Ayalon to evacuate settlers from Moskowitz's compound in Ras al-Amud, for fear of riots in East Jerusalem. That opinion, along with a bit of pressure from the Clinton administration, convinced Netanyahu during his first term as prime minister to remove the tenants from their homes. Netanyahu explained that the decision serves "the unity of Jerusalem, the unity of the nation and the continuation of the peace process."

Two years later, Deputy Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, who would eventually replace Rubinstein, reinforced his predecessor's opinion. Following an appeal filed by attorney Daniel Seidemann, founder of the non-profit organization Ir Amim - For an Equitable and Stable Jerusalem with an Agreed Political Future, Mazuz stressed that it was incumbent upon the government level to retain diplomatic freedom of actions in its hands at such a diplomatically sensitive time, "And prevent a single individual, and one who is a foreign citizen at that, from tying its hands and dictating measures with far-reaching diplomatic repercussions."

Mazuz did not stop there and outlined a way to avoid the next terror attack. He wrote that it is untenable that the government is authorized to expropriate land for the purposes of preserving antiquities or planting trees, but is not authorized to expropriate land for diplomatic reasons.

The state makes generous use of the tool of expropriation when it comes to seizing property privately owned by Arabs in East Jerusalem for the benefit of the Jewish public, but sanctifies private property when it comes to that which was in Jewish hands before 1948. Sometimes the state does this with the help of the Absentee Property Law and in other cases it does so by means of another law dating from 1970.

A third attorney general, Michael Ben-Yair, who preceded Rubinstein and who makes a point of participating in the demonstrations against the eviction of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, notes that former Finance Minister Yigal Horowitz used the tool of expropriation to return the Hassan Bek mosque to its owner, the waqf (Muslim religious trust ) of Jaffa.

Ben-Yair is helping the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement prepare a detailed plan to resolve the legal/real estate issue in that and other neighborhoods in East Jerusalem coveted by the right. This document will show that, if the government wants to, it can prevent the injustice and stupidity of evicting Palestinians from their homes and erecting Jewish settlements in their stead.

A number of cabinet ministers, among them one top minister from the Likud, have told me that if Netanyahu decides to give up the land in Sheikh Jarrah, they will not object. They understand that the settlers are reopening the 1948 file and thereby subverting the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

The Solidarity people, who have often taken a beating from the police and have been sent to jail, are hoping the inhabitants of Sheikh Jarrah will rebut the rumor (which has appeared on the pages of Al Quds, a daily close to the Palestinian Authority ) that the peace activists want to evacuate the settlers from the houses so they can take them over themselves. The peace activists want to make it clear that there is no question about their goal: for the houses to be returned to the Palestinian tenants.

Explaining Israel

Google the phrase "Nazi Germany laws against renting property to Jews" and one of the first hits you will find is a report from October 20 of this year about the Safed rabbis' efforts to prevent apartment owners from renting to Arabs. National pride.