Slouching Toward Sheikh Jarrah

"Natural growth" - OUT. "A united Jerusalem"- IN. It has seemed that a ladder was found to bring the parties in to the negotiating table from the limb they were on over construction in the settlements. But now they have all climbed yet higher onto a limb over Jewish construction in East Jerusalem.

From Netanyahu's point of view, there is no bargain more kosher. Every Jew knows Jerusalem is an inseparable part of the state of Israel. Just like Washington is for Americans. How does U.S. President Obama dare interfere at all in decisions relating to the sovereign territory of the state of Israel?

Netanyahu knows Jerusalem is a winning card for his constituency. And indeed is there another issue over which there is broader and more powerful a consensus among the people of Israel?

But the prime minister also knows there is no more tried and true remedy to block a diplomatic initiative on the Palestinian track than new construction plans in East Jerusalem. In his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu supported the plan of then Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert to establish the Har Homa neighborhood in the southeast part of the city. The result was a crisis in relations with the Palestinians.

The failed attempt by the Clinton administration to foil the plan critically damaged trust on the part of Yasser Arafat and other Arab leaders in the willingness and/or ability of the United States to twist Israel's arm and bring us back to Oslo.

Netanyahu has enlisted the Shepherd Hotel issue to ratchet up his campaign against U.S. President Obama and his followers. He is again counting on short collective memories and relying on "understandings" between the administration of George W. Bush and Sharon and Olmert.

Who knows that, contrary to the spirit of Netanyahu's words, a Jew from Brooklyn is entitled to buy land in the East Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, but a Palestinian born in Sheikh Jarrah is not entitled to buy an apartment in the Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa? The Israel Lands Administration enters into contracts only with Israeli citizens or with those who are entitled to citizenship under the Law of Return.

Who remembers that President Bush signed onto 16 suspensions - one every six months - of the 1995 law related to moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?

From the standpoint of his administration as well, there wasn't a difference in principle between building a Jewish neighborhood in Sheikh Jarrah and establishing an outpost outside the West Bank settlement of Itamar. They are all occupied territory.

Who has heard that, following protest by the previous U.S. administration over the expansion of construction in Har Homa, Olmert announced that he had barred members of the cabinet to advance construction plans in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, without his personal approval?

Declarations and facts on the ground are two separate things. Olmert bequeathed Netanyahu a large number of plans and even scaffolding in East Jerusalem.

In December 2007, a week after the launch of final status talks regarding the West Bank and East Jerusalem at the Annapolis conference, the Israel Lands Administration published a request for bids for 307 new housing units in Har Homa, and there were other similar bids to follow in East Jerusalem. And recently, the district planning and construction committee in Jerusalem approved construction of a hotel on the outskirts of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi Joz, adjacent to the walls of the Old City - a project of the municipality of Jerusalem itself.

The municipality is also one of the owners of land in a neighborhood for the Jewish religious public currently being established in the Arab al-Sawahira neighborhood in the southeast of the city. And there are many other examples.

The Ir Amim organization, which encourages coexistence in Jerusalem between Jews and Arabs notes that these plans, though lacking statutory status, serve as a basis for demolition of Palestinian homes in these areas and for scuttling building plans by Palestinians there. At the same time, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Housing and Construction Ministry lend a hand and even provide assurances to right-wing organizations which declare their intention to make the Old City and the more extensive Holy Basin more Jewish.