Western communists, it was said in another era, took out their umbrellas whenever it rained in Moscow. I remembered that adage as I read a recent statement from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that arrived in my inbox. The subject was the latest U.S.-Israeli flap over construction in East Jerusalem. No matter that the diplomatic thunderstorm appears artificial -- deliberately engineered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deflect the Obama administration's pressure to freeze settlement activity. At the Presidents Conference headquarters in New York, the umbrellas were opened with alacrity. The statement is an uncritical repetition of Netanyahu government spin.
The locus of the clash is a four-story building known as the Shepherd Hotel in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood north of Jerusalem's Old City. It's an affluent area where foreign consulates are scattered between mansions of aristocratic Palestinian clans such as the Husseinis and Nashashibis. The hotel building itself was once the headquarters of Hajj Amin al-Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem and Arab nationalist leader during British rule of Palestine. After Israel conquered and annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, a government agency -- the Custodian of Absentee Property -- took possession of the building.
In the mid-1980s, it was sold to a corporation owned by American millionaire Irving Moskowitz, the financial angel of far-right Israeli groups intent on settling Jews in Palestinian neighborhoods inside and encircling the Old City. Moskowitz-backed projects have repeatedly been flashpoints for Israeli-Palestinian tensions. They're also a direct threat to any attempt to reach a compromise over the future of the so-called Holy Basin -- the Old City and its environs -- which is critical for any peace agreement.
Today the hotel is dilapidated and empty, with plastic sheeting flapping over broken windows. For several years, say sources familiar with the subject, Moskowitz has sought approval to build apartments on the site for Israelis. The British government has been particularly disturbed by the plan, since the heavily guarded settler compound would be practically in the backyard of the nearby British consulate. Because of the foreign concerns, the previous Israeli government and Jerusalem mayor put off approval of building permits for the development. Even the Netanyahu government promised the U.S. that there would be "no surprises" at the site, according to a source immersed in Jerusalem diplomatic issues.
Then, on July 2, the Jerusalem municipality – now headed by right-wing Mayor Nir Barkat – quietly issued permits for the first 20 apartments at the Shepherd Hotel lot. Given the consequences, such a move is unthinkable without the approval – or encouragement – of the national government. At the beginning of last week, a sudden flurry of reports appeared in the Israeli media: At a meeting at the State Department, U.S. officials told Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren that the administration wanted the project stopped. That, in turn, gave Netanyahu the opportunity to publicly announce that in "united Jerusalem," there would be no limits on Jewish construction.
The affair, of course, comes in the midst of a larger dispute. The Obama administration wants Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and evacuate small settlement outposts built since 2001; Netanyahu rejects a freeze and has yet to take serious action on the outposts. The American position – hardly new with this administration – is construction for Israelis in East Jerusalem constitutes settlement.
In Israel, it's no longer political heresy to talk about a political division of Jerusalem. Nonetheless, the slogan of "united Jerusalem" has much firmer political support than does expanding settlement outside the city. As for the outposts, they're identified with an unpopular, radical fringe of the settlement movement, and the government's unwillingness to evacuate them smacks of weakness. The Shepherd Hotel affair has neatly allowed Netanyahu to shift the focus of the argument with the United States -- presenting himself as defending Jewish rights in Jerusalem, rather than settlement. It helps that most Israelis are unfamiliar with the geography of East Jerusalem and the location of the planned development. While expanding Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem is also meant to preempt peace negotiations, placing right-wing activists inside Palestinian neighborhoods is far more provocative. Netanyahu's rhetoric hides the distinction.
Netanyahu, it seems, is also gambling that "united Jerusalem" can still produce reflexive support among American Jews, amplifying criticism of Obama among his own constituency. On the surface, the statement issued by Presidents Conference Chair Alan Solow and Executive Vice Chair Malcolm Hoenlein shows that the bet has paid off. The Conference is a roof body of 52 national Jewish organizations and claims to present the "consensus policy" of American Jewry. One of its key roles is lobbying the executive branch on Israeli issues. And Solow and Hoenlein's concise, misleading comments serve Netanyahu's purpose.
"We find disturbing the objections raised to the proposed construction of residential units on property that was legally purchased and approved by the appropriate authorities," the statement says, as if describing the real-estate market and local zoning decisions in, say, Silver Spring. But in Jerusalem, where all planning is strategic and all local issues are international, both the sale of the property and the approval of construction are political moves intended to determine the city's future status.
"In addition to the Jewish housing, the project called for apartment units for Arabs as well," Solow and Hoenlein say. This is simply untrue, according to attorney Daniel Seidemann, an expert on East Jerusalem affairs, who has seen the building permits. The project is intended as an Israeli enclave inside the Palestinian neighborhood.
Even stranger, though, is this passage: "It is particularly significant that the structure in question formerly was the house of the infamous Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseni who spent the war years in Berlin as a close ally of Hitler." This follows the lead of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has told Israeli diplomats that to deflect critics of the project, they should circulate a photo of Husseini meeting Hitler. That the mufti supported Hitler is undeniable. The logic connecting that fact to moving settlers into Sheikh Jarrah is unfathomable. Though the competition for cynical use of the Holocaust is stiff, this surely deserves dishonorable mention.
Beyond the details, a basic question is whether the statement indeed reflects the "consensus policy" of American Jews. Americans for Peace Now, a member organization of the conference, was "surprised to learn that this statement was published. We were never notified about it or given an opportunity to comment on it," spokesperson Ori Nir has said. In a reply to the JTA news agency, Nir noted that "APN strongly opposes actions that change the status quo in Jerusalem." Other Jewish groups with an explicit pro-peace agenda, such as J Street, aren't Conference members.
In its response to the Shepherd Hotel dispute, the Presidents Conference indeed acted as an umbrella organization -- in the sense of reflexively taking out the umbrellas. But American Jewry is not a tightly organized party run from the top down. Whether the conference statement is taken as representative of a diverse community depends on how strongly Jews who support compromise in Jerusalem make their voices heard.