Jerusalem's Obstructionist Construction

So far, the bulldozers have carved a large hole in the chalky hillside for foundations. On the street, a developer's sign shows a picture of three multifloor apartment buildings that will rise on the site. The name of the developer, Bemuna, is written in Hebrew and means "in faith."

The company's Web site says the project is located in East Talpiot -- one of the Jewish neighborhoods that Israel built after it annexed East Jerusalem in 1967. That's a stretch, as I found when I visited the building site this week. The hole in the ground is surrounded by the houses of Arab a-Sawahra, a Palestinian neighborhood that borders East Talpiot. Once completed, the buildings will be three emphatic statements of Jewish presence in the neighborhood, three declarations that a political border can't be easily drawn between Arab and Jewish areas of the city.

Bemuna's project is not an isolated case. The first stage of the Nof Zion ( Zion View) development looks ready for buyers to move in. In one of the buildings, I found names written in English on two of 15 mailboxes in the lobby; the rest were still blank. Nof Zion is being marketed to Orthodox Jews from abroad. On the marketing Web site, a drawing {link: }of the full project shows that it will include a synagogue and a country club. But the project is inside Jabel Mukaber, another Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

These projects, and many more, should be of very deep concern to Barack Obama as he prepares for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's upcoming visit to Washington. Obama has already made clear that he's committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's likely that he, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Middle East envoy George Mitchell have been dusting off the most succinct American delineation of such a solution -- the parameters that Bill Clinton laid out just before he left the White House. The problem is that the Clinton parameters are being buried in construction refuse.

Clinton recognized that the city couldn't be divided along the pre-1967 lines. Too much had changed since the annexation. Physically, he said, Jerusalem should remain an open, undivided city. Politically, sovereignty should be split: "What is Arab should be Palestinian," and "what is Jewish should be Israeli." In other words, Jewish neighborhoods, including those built since 1967 in annexed territory, would remain under Israeli rule, while Palestinian neighborhoods would become part of the new state to be established in the West Bank and Gaza. According to unofficial versions of what Clinton told Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, that principle would apply to the Old City as well, difficult as it would be to work out arrangements for disputed holy sites.

The Clinton parameters assumed that Jews and Palestinians lived in distinct neighborhoods and that it would be possible -- even if not always easy -- to link those neighborhoods to Israel and Palestine. At the time, that was generally true.

But if supporters of peace took the parameters as a rough outline of a future agreement, the Israeli right has treated them as a warning. A shifting mix of government officials, commercial developers, and settler groups have done their best to make a political division more difficult. The building effort has become more intense since the Annapolis peace conference in November 2007. It's likely to accelerate further under Netanyahu -- unless a very clear warning from Obama convinces the prime minister to put on the brakes.

Part of the push is direct action by government agencies to expand Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Immediately after Annapolis, the Israel Land Authority (ILA) announced that it was taking bids from contractors to build over 300 new units in Har Homa, a Jewish neighborhood in southeast Jerusalem. Established during the 1990s, Har Homa is placed to cut off territorial contiguity between Jerusalem's Old City and Bethlehem.

By mid-2008, the ILA and the Housing Ministry had invited bids for nearly 2000 apartments in East Jerusalem, according to a recent report by Ir Amim, an Israeli peace group that focuses on Jerusalem. The new projects expand Jewish areas, block growth of Palestinian ones, and make it harder to draw a political border in Jerusalem, the report says.

More quietly, planning authorities have approved more major developments for Israelis in East Jerusalem, and additional projects are in the planning pipeline. One of the approved developments, at Givat Hamatos on the southern side of the city, is placed to hem in the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa, cutting it off from other Palestinian areas. The plan "will make final status territorial arrangements based on the Clinton parameters in the Beit Safafa area difficult, if not impossible," the Ir Amim report says.

One major housing development has been blocked, so far. That's "E-1" -- the bureaucratic name for an area of East Jerusalem between existing Jewish neighborhoods and the suburban settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim to its east. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wanted to fill the area with housing for Jews -- to create a finger of Israeli settlement that would divide the West Bank in two. According to Israeli attorney Daniel Seidemann, an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations in the city, Sharon froze the project under pressure from George W. Bush. That's the rare exception to Bush's hands-off attitude -- and proof that U.S. pressure can work. As a candidate, Netanyahu said he'd build at E-1. A clear message from Washington is needed quickly.

The projects in Arab a-Sawahra and Jabel Mukaber, it appears, are the initiatives of private developers with a mix of commercial and ideological motives. At a minimum, though, they benefit from government acquiescence. Lest there be any confusion, the developments do not represent peaceful integration. The new buildings are self-contained complexes, just inside the Arab areas but not of them. At the same time, their purpose is apparently to obscure "what is Arab" and "what is Jewish" and prevent a political division.

The area of Jerusalem most aflame with national claims and religious passions, though, is at the center of Jerusalem -- the Old City and its immediate environs, sometimes called the "holy basin" or "historic basin." The real political battle, Seidemann argues, is over this area. And with the help of government agencies, right-wing settler groups have focused their effort on ringing the historic basin with points of Jewish settlement. Ironically, the effort implies that the right -- angrily, despite itself -- knows that Israel will give up much of the West Bank. The ring around the Old City is a final defense, intended to keep the most ancient and holy areas of Jerusalem in Israeli hands.

One focus of settler activity is the City of David, a wedge of hillside in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan. Though it is located just outside the Old City walls, the City of David area is the original location of ancient Jerusalem. A right-wing organization called Elad has conducted a two-pronged offensive in the City of David. One prong is settling Jews in the area. The other is managing the national archaeological park in the City of David, where Elad guides present an exclusively Jewish history of the area and of Jerusalem as a whole.

To the east, on the Mount of Olives, is an apartment complex called Ma'aleh Zeitim (Olive Slope) -- a Jewish enclave in the midst of the Palestinian neighborhood of Ras al-Amud. The land is owned by right-wing American businessman Irving Moskowitz, a longtime supporter of settler projects in East Jerusalem. Two buildings at the site, with over 50 apartments, were completed several years ago; two more are under construction. When I came to look around this week, a heavily armed guard at the gate asked me, "Are you Jewish?" and what I wanted. I said I was interested in the new apartments, and he allowed me in. A few moments later, another security man -- apparently his boss -- found me and told me that I'd have to arrange in advance with a sales agent to visit.

When the first settlers moved in at Ma'aleh Zeitim, apparently in 2003, an article on a settler news site explicitly described the purpose of the project: Foiling diplomatic plans to allow free Palestinian access to the Temple Mount (and al-Aqsa Mosque) without passing through Jewish areas.

Foiling diplomacy, indeed, is the shared purpose of all these projects: rendering the Clinton formula irrelevant, blocking the political division of Jerusalem, and thereby eliminating a two-state solution.

For Obama, there are several implications: First, every bulldozer, crane, and cement mixer ignored today will make an agreement more difficult later. An immediate freeze on Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is essential for any diplomatic process.

Second, Obama can reasonably cite the Clinton parameters as a basis for peace. But the definition of "what is Arab" and "what is Jewish" can't be fluid, dependent on the latest housing starts. It needs to be attached to a date -- the end of 2000, or at an absolute minimum, today. What has been built, or is built, after that date, should not be part of the American proposal for political lines in Jerusalem.

To put it simply, Netanyahu should know that building Jewish enclaves in Arab a-Sawahra or Ras al-Amud won't change the borders. Anyone buying an apartment in those enclaves will eventually end up leaving or living under Palestinian sovereignty. Anyone selling those apartments -- and any official approving them -- is acting in bad faith.

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