The public disagreement between Israel and the U.S. over continued settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem has heated up considerably. At a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly rejected the Obama administration’s request for a halt to construction of a planned settlement in Sheikh Jarrah, located in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem.
The disputed site is owned by billionaire and settlement supporter Irving Moskowitz, who bought the property in 1985. Moskowitz hopes to construct 20 residence units at what is currently the site of the Shepherd’s Hotel. The location was once used as a residence by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. It was also once the home of author and Palestinian nationalist George Antonius. The location borders a historic and wealthy Palestinian neighborhood that has many opulent villas. The proposed building site was described at the Israeli (Hebrew) Channel One Web site as a "ticking time bomb since 1985." The municipality of Jerusalem has prevented the development of the site until recently because of Palestinian sensibilities.
During Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous tenure as prime minister, two long-contemplated, controversial construction projects in East Jerusalem were begun despite intense Palestinian and international protest. The first was the opening of an exit for a tunnel to the Muslim quarter near the Via Dolorosa that runs under the Haram-al-Sharif, or the Temple Mount. The second was the construction of a Jewish settlement on Jabal Abu Ghneim, or Har Homa, on a hill overlooking the city that is located in Israeli-occupied territory.
Despite delays caused by opponents, these projects have been completed as planned. Today the excavated tunnel is one of the most popular Jerusalem tourist attractions, where visitors can use the once controversial Via Dolorosa exit to enter the Arab market located in the Muslim quarter. Jabal Abu Ghneim is today the site of an Israeli settlement containing 4,000 housing units. It is difficult for many to recall that in 1997 the UN General Assembly voted 132-3 to recommend a halt to construction of the settlement. The countries that voted against the resolution were Israel, the United States, and Micronesia.
The opening of the tunnel exit (and the tunnel excavation) and the building of the Jewish settlement on Jabal Abu Ghneim were both delayed by previous Israeli administrations, at least partially because of the many legitimate Palestinian concerns. Benjamin Netanyahu ignored these concerns, which resulted in rioting and international condemnation. Now in his second turn as prime minister, Netanyahu has again chosen to ignore Palestinian sensitivities and international opinion. His government has decided to allow the construction of settler residences at the site known to the Palestinians as Karm al-Mufti (Vineyard of the Mufti), which previous Israeli governments have refrained from doing. This new settlement is only a fraction of the size of the one built on Jabal Abu Ghneim and is not as strategically located. The planned construction site, though historic, is not nearly as sensitive as the tunnel construction, which posed significant danger to the structure of the Haram (mosque compound) located above it.
What makes construction at the Shepherd’s Hotel site so controversial is that it demonstrates Israel’s policy of not only generally rejecting the U.S. request to cease building in the territories, but also to halt building at a specific site. An entreaty to stop the planned building on the property was delivered to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren by State Department officials within the last few days. According to Ha’aretz, Oren told the Americans that Jerusalem is no different from any other part of his country and that Israel would not accede to their demand.
In his speech to the cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu declared, "Jerusalem is united, it is the capital of the Jewish people, and its sovereignty is not open to debate." He further added that any Jew has the right to build anywhere in Jerusalem. The prime minister’s statement received support from opposition member of parliament Yoel Hasoon (Kadima), who said,"the American request to refrain from building in Jerusalem is not legitimate. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the Jewish people, and is not a settlement ."
Further evidence that Israel and the United States are far from resolving the settlement-expansion dispute was the postponement of this week’s scheduled meeting between Special Envoy George Mitchell and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. There has been no official confirmation of when the next meeting between the two will occur.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to obey the U.S. demand to halt construction in East Jerusalem and in the "settlement blocs" has wide support among Israelis, who are mostly dug in against what they consider a betrayal by the Americans. Even politicians who are against the occupation have not spoken out on behalf of the Obama demand for a settlement freeze, according to Israeli journalist Aluf Benn. But if the Americans want to be a credible force for peace in Israel/Palestine it is important that they hold firm on their demand that Israel cease all settlement construction in all of the West Bank, including Jerusalem. Each new Israeli structure designated "for Jews only" prejudices a future settlement and makes a mockery of the "peace process."
As the journalist and blogger Philip Weiss wrote about the confrontation over Karm al-Mufti, "Isn’t this the whole enchilada? Isn’t this what Obama promised in his Cairo speech, a shared Jerusalem?" Harvard professor and blogger Stephen Walt wrote me a couple days ago that he thought Obama and Netanyahu "are headed for an eyeball to eyeball situation," and he has "no idea who will blink first." Who knows? Maybe this is the confrontation Walt just predicted.