They are building at Har Homa. The round hill, once forested, is now a hive of muddy streets, of men in hardhats shouting over the pneumatic thumping hammers and grinding cement mixers and the big shovels growling on tank treads. Tall spindly yellow cranes rise above the dense throng of apartment towers in every stage of construction—from empty-eyed concrete shells, to stone-faced buildings with windows and mailboxes and elevators waiting for moving crews, to the buildings, higher on the hill, where real residents have already put flowerboxes on balconies. Developers' signs decorate the streets like picket signs above a demonstration. Long bundles of steel rods for reinforcing concrete lie on muddy lots. Below the lowest ring road around the hill, in the wadi, olive trees still grow on ancient terraces lushly green from winter rain, but the terraces' day will come, because all of the frenzy and concrete visible today constitute only the first third of the planned Israeli neighborhood stuck strategically between Bethlehem in the West Bank and Palestinian East Jerusalem.
If there is a freeze on settlement, you wouldn't know it by looking at Har Homa. Under the U.S. "road map" for peace, Israel is required to stop "all settlement activity," just as the Palestinian Authority is obligated to take "sustained, targeted, and effective" measures to stop terror. Since the Annapolis conference in November, the United States is supposed to be monitoring both governments and holding them to their commitments. So far, the freeze is mostly talk.
About three miles to the north of Har Homa, around a table laden with silver coffee pitchers and platters of petit fours at the King David Hotel in West Jerusalem, Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon met with journalists last Monday. Ramon, tall, jowly, petulant, embodies the worst and occasionally the best of politics. He was convicted last year of forcing a kiss on a female soldier. He has betrayed former allies—including Yitzhak Rabin, whose cabinet he quit in a complex, quixotic and successful gambit to enact universal health care. He is now the crony of and idea man behind Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was once the idea man behind Ariel Sharon. I was told the briefing would be on a plan for paying compensation to West Bank settlers willing to move back to Israel. Ramon's support within the ruling Kadima party for such a plan is squishy. But even a declaration of his intentions would matter: It would say that he—and by implication Olmert—are ready to spend money and political capital to shrink settlements. It would be a small step toward getting Israel out of the West Bank quagmire
But Ramon never described his compensation plan. "We can wait another month till we speak [about that]. We are thinking, we are planning, but it's not on the table," he told me. Instead he spoke about the slow-motion war with Hamas around Gaza and the slow-motion negotiating process with Mahmud Abbas's government in the West Bank. President Bush, he said, "is expecting a declaration of principles" by the end of this year, not a detailed peace treaty, not the establishment of a Palestinian state by January 2009. Olmert and Abbas were originally supposed to reach a declaration of principles, an outline for a treaty, by the Annapolis conference. So Ramon was drastically deflating expectations—and reminding anyone listening that the next U.S. president will inherit Bush's unfinished work.
As for settlement construction, he said, there is a "total freeze." As evidence, he cited the chorus of complaints from settlement mayors unhappy that they can’t go ahead with expansion plans. Ramon confessed that he is unhappy that the freeze applies to large settlements near the pre-1967 border—places like Givat Ze'ev, north of Jerusalem, which he still doggedly asserts will remain in Israel's hands in a peace deal. If he had his way, clearly Israel would continue building in these so-called settlement blocs. Ramon could not say whether the freeze applied to buildings already under construction, or only to beginning new neighborhoods. He certainly did not mention Har Homa, which is inside the Jerusalem city limits, part of the West Bank land that Israel annexed in 1967. As seen by the government, Har Homa isn't a settlement at all, even if the rest of the world sees it that way.
The rest of the world includes Condoleezza Rice, who said last month that "Har Homa is a settlement the United States has opposed from the very beginning," and that America "doesn't make a distinction" between construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Rice was responding to the announcement in December that the government was taking bids to build over 300 new units in the neighborhood.
Rice's words have had just enough effect to show that American pressure could work—were it applied much more firmly. There is certainly no settlement freeze in the sense of a government order not to add another window pane or door knob to homes already under construction. For the moment, there does appear to be a backroom struggle over preventing new housing anywhere beyond the pre-1967 border—even in East Jerusalem. As usual, though, settlement advocates are winning.
Where houses are going up, the pace of work hasn't slowed. Hundreds of homes are being built in the massive suburban settlements of Beitar Illit and Ma'aleh Adumim near Jerusalem, notes Hagit Ofran, coordinator of the Peace Now movement's Settlement Watch team. But at Givat Ze'ev, the Housing Ministry is reportedly refusing to let contractors start work on a major project, under instructions from Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Not only that, Jerusalem city manager Ya'ir Ma'ayan said at a Knesset committee meeting this week that the government had put a hold on building plans in the east city, including another development at Har Homa. Ma'ayan said the Housing Ministry told him it was waiting for Olmert to decide on the projects. That sounded significant. The prime minister doesn't normally need to sign off on construction inside Jerusalem. It meant that Olmert was trying to get the bureaucracy under control, to prevent mid-level officials from rushing forward on settlement. And the line defining "settlement" was now the pre-1967 border. And that, in turn, could only be the result of pressure from Washington.
Almost reflexively, Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim got on Israel Radio to deny that any freeze applied within Jerusalem. The delay, according a statement from his spokesman, was just normal red tape. But red tape matters. If the ministry wanted, it could even kill the Har Homa project that aroused Rice's ire in December, simply by deciding not to accept any of the bids that contractors made. For the ministry to want even a little to do this, Olmert would have to want to very much, which would mean that Rice and Bush would have to want it even more.
The call for bids in Har Homa after Annapolis almost certainly happened without Olmert's knowledge, says Daniel Seidemann, an attorney active in East Jerusalem affairs (and no fan of the prime minister). Rather, he says, it was one example of "the empire strikes back"—the empire being the powerful network of settlers and settlement supporters within the government bureaucracy, up to the cabinet level. Their goal, after Annapolis, has been to deliberately sabotage negotiations that threaten the future of the settlements. This is an old pattern, dating back to the beginning of the occupation in 1967: slow-motion diplomacy spurs quick building. More than one settlement is a monument to a failed diplomatic initiative.
The test for Olmert, as Seidemann points out, is to give clear orders to the bureaucrats, and to make sure that they are carried out. The "test for the American president is how serious he is about a credible political process." If Bush is serious, he'll insist that construction stop, just as he'll insist that Abbas prevent terror attacks. The message may not be public. The results will be. New projects won't begin. The ones now being built will stop.
By the end of last week, Olmert had failed part of that test. A government agency, the Israel Lands Authority, announced that it had accepted four contractors' bids to build the project announced in December. That move, in turn, opens the way for more projects. Either Olmert approved the decision, or pro-settlement bureaucrats have again ignored national leaders. The next question is how the Bush administration will respond. The president could make a phone call to Olmert and say, "I told you not to do that, and I meant don't do it." Don't put a lot of money on this happening.
Like a giant bulldozer, the settlement enterprise has been rolling forward for years. There is evidence that Olmert and Ramon are rather gingerly trying to put their feet on the brake, that Rice and Bush are rather gently encouraging them to. That's not enough to stop the machine. When and if they get serious, the pounding and grinding at Har Homa will stop, and the vast hive will go silent.