Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Jerusalem Heartburn

David Hazony - 07.20.2009 - 4:32 PM

We knew it would come to this. Over the weekend, the Obama administration showed just how radical the shift in U.S. policy toward Israel has been. It has demanded that the Israeli government withdraw the municipal approval of a building project in the Eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The land that houses the old, run-down Shepherd Hotel, which is to be replaced by an apartment building, was lawfully purchased by Jews. No matter: That part of town is seen by Washington as a “settlement.” Today, U.S. officials made it even clearer when they reportedly told both sides that they see no difference between Eastern Jerusalem and rogue settler outposts in the middle of the West Bank. Understandably, the Israeli government has rejected the directive, and some reports suggest that the Israelis may have deliberately leaked the demand, for it plays to Netanyahu’s image as standing tall against American pressure.

Washington has a longstanding tradition of doublespeak when dealing with Jerusalem. On the one hand, Obama himself couldn’t help but declare his commitment (subsequently retracted) to a unified Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty while campaigning for office — and he even promised to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, which is not the capital by any definition of the term, to Jerusalem.

At the same time, he is not the first presidential candidate to make that promise, nor the first one to forget about it when in office, in the process ignoring the express will of Congress. It’s those pesky State Department folks, you see, who keep advising successive presidents that now is not the right time. For 60 years, Israel’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government have found their seat in Jerusalem, and Israel’s “closest ally” still keeps its embassy by the beach. At least we Jerusalemites don’t have to worry about all those diplomat vehicles taking our precious parking spots.

It gets weirder. As I have pointed out before, the United States does not appear to recognize Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem — West or East. A federal-court ruling earlier this month underscores the simple fact that any American citizen born in Jerusalem, regardless of where he lives, gets a U.S. passport with the country listed as simply “Jerusalem.” U.S. citizens living in Jerusalem cannot get help at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv; they are directed to the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which answers directly to Washington, rather than to the embassy.

Again, this stuff has been going on for a long time. It begins with a fundamental attitude on the part of successive American administrations, really dating back to the 1947 UN partition plan putting the city under “universal” governance. The point is, the reasoning goes, we don’t fully see the logic in giving Israel full sovereignty of Jerusalem. It’s not just about placating the Arabs, although that’s a big part of it; it is, after all, a city of international importance. Why should only Israel have it?

So in the interest of fostering a constructive dialogue with an American diplomatic universe that seems to have no interest whatever in Israel’s position on the subject, I’d like to toss out a few brief reminders.

1. Israel should have Jerusalem, first of all, because it already does. Jews have been a majority of the city consecutively since the middle of the 19th century. There is no issue here of occupation a Jewish minority displacing Palestinians in their land. Over the past century and a half, the city was divided for 19 years by an accident of war, split between Israel and Jordan, neither of which occupations having earned international recognition; and then it was reunited.

Thus was born the infamous and irrelevant “Green Line,” something that today exists on maps only. The Jordanians cleansed the eastern city of its Jews and burned down its synagogues. Then the Jews came back in 1967 and gave the city a greater degree of not only economic success but also religious, cultural, and political freedom than it has ever enjoyed under any of the different Muslim, Christian, and pagan regimes that preceded them. Consider, by contrast, the treatment of Jewish holy sites under Palestinian rule: Joseph’s Tomb, for example, was immediately set on fire, as were all the synagogues of the Gaza Strip. At the risk of “prejudicing” the outcome of negotiations through the employment of argument, why on earth should it not be Israel’s?

2. Israel should have Jerusalem because it is more important to Jews than it is to Muslims (or Christians, or anyone else). This may sound vaguely discriminatory or religionist or unpopularly theological or just unfunny, but the fact is that there is a difference between the “most important” holy city and the “third most important” city that is far more than quantitative. This is the geographical heart of biblical Israel, the focus of its golden age of David and Solomon, the political-messianic-metahistorical dream focus of three millennia of Jewish prayer. This is the heart of everything, and that heart beats not on Herzl Boulevard or Jaffa Road by the Central Bus Station but in Eastern Jerusalem, at the site where the First and Second Temples stood for about a thousand years before the glorious Romans burned them down.

3. Israel should have Jerusalem because there is no practical way to divide the city that would satisfy both sides. Never mind the bizarre MTA-subway-style map that would ensue, intertwining all the Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in the city. The real problem is that Israelis and Palestinians have totally irreconcilable views as to how such a division would work in practice — a difference so wide as to make the entire endeavor a pipe dream.

Israelis see any separation as similar to the one Israel has with Egypt and Jordan: a full border, with strict crossings and a fundamental divorce of economic life. This is essential to any deal — the entire idea of giving up land in exchange for peace comes with the heavy baggage of decades of terror attacks. But such a separation, we have been told repeatedly, is anathema to the Palestinians themselves, who rely heavily on Israeli jobs for their living and see any real separation a form of “siege” — turning their territory into a “prison.” (If you don’t believe this, ask yourself how the Gazans would react if Israel were to lift the sea and air restrictions on the Strip: Would they say “we are now free” or “we are still under siege”?) This problem is little discussed but will become a deal breaker the moment anyone starts talking seriously about borders or dividing the city.

Jerusalem is not just a consensus issue in Israel but also a deeply personal one. There is no erasing the thousands of years of yearning for Jerusalem in Jewish texts, nor the heart-wrenching failure of Jewish forces to capture East Jerusalem in 1948, nor the national catharsis of its reunification in the Six Day War, nor over four decades of astonishing development and construction and tourism and flourishing of religious life for all faiths since then. The idea that now, suddenly, a new American president, speaking of “settlements,” will change this reality is not simply offensive and alienating to Israelis only but also to Jews the world over. Rather than recognize his failure in the Middle East so far, Obama is exacerbating it. Israelis do not like to be bullied, and this is far more likely to steel the Israeli public’s resolve against American pressure than weaken it.

There was Obama's AIPAC speech where he supported an undivided Jerusalem, which liberal Jewish groups immediately printed on literally millions of pamphlets and sent to low-information Jewish voters looking for an excuse to vote Democratic. Then there was Obama's immediate flip-flop when he came under "Palestinian pressure," which for some reason didn't get as much public attention.

But then there was the reversal of the reversal a few days later, where the campaign insisted that Obama would not interfere with Jerusalem, that "Israel has a legitimate claim on" the Old City, and that "no one should want or expect [Jerusalem] to be redivided:"

In an interview today with CNN's Candy Crowley, Obama said of Jerusalem, "obviously, it's going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations." Of his feelings about dividing Jerusalem, Obama said: "As a practical matter, it would be very difficult to execute. And I think that it is smart for us to -- to work through a system in which everybody has access to the extraordinary religious sites in Old Jerusalem but that Israel has a legitimate claim on that city."...

The Obama campaign put a reporter in immediate contact with Rep. Robert Wexler... who told ABC News, "that is not backtracking." "His position has been the same for the past 16 months," Wexler said. "He believes Jerusalem should be an undivided city and must be the capital of a Jewish state of Israel. He has also said... that Jerusalem is of course a 'final status' issue," meaning it would be one of the key and final points of negotiation for a Palestinian state. "And Sen. Obama as president would not dictate final status issues. He will permit the Palestinians and Israel to negotiate, and he would respect any conclusion they reach."...

And in these answers to questions from the American Jewish Committee, Obama wrote that the U.S. "cannot dictate the terms of a final status agreement. We should support the parties as they negotiate these difficult issues, but they will have to reach agreements that they can live with. In general terms, clearly Israel must emerge in a final status agreement with secure borders. Jerusalem will remain Israel's capital, and no one should want or expect it to be redivided."

Obama's new approach of counting East Jerusalem as a settlement is a break with previous administrations. It's not that the US explicitly recognized Israel's rights to an undivided capital, though Obama obviously promised as much during the campaign. It's just that the status of the Old City - which had been cleansed of thousands of Jews by the Jordanians before Israel captured it and let them return - was never an issue. The State Department doesn't even count those neighborhoods when they tabulate settlements. It's just never been a thing before now. Obama just made it up.

Netanyahu, for his part, has had enough:

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, responding to the reports that Washington had asked Israel not to build 20 apartments in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in east Jerusalem, near Mount Scopus and the National Police headquarters, said, "I would like to reemphasize that united Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel. Our sovereignty over it cannot be challenged; this means - inter alia - that residents of Jerusalem may purchase apartments in all parts of the city. "This has been the policy of all Israeli governments and I would like to say that it is indeed being implemented because in recent years hundreds of apartments in Jewish neighborhoods and in the western part of the city have been purchased by - or rented to - Arab residents and we did not interfere," he said.

The original article had Netanyahu quite a bit more piqued, talking about how Obama had crossed a "red line" by denying Jewish sovereignty over its ancient capital.

One last flashback:

There is no doubt US President-elect Barack Obama could work well with Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu... Congressman Robert Wexler, one of Obama's most prominent early supporters in the Jewish community, told The Jerusalem Post... Wexler said, "I know that Obama and Netanyahu have met on at least two occasions... I am confident that should he become the prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu would get along very well with Barack Obama, and the two of them would work in concert toward the achievement of mutual interests. I have no doubt about that."

So while some people might be inclined to blame Wexler for intentionally lying about how Obama supports an undivided Jerusalem, this last quote suggests that it's not his fault. He might just be a moron.


1. Jews to Reclaim Land in Jordan?
by Maayana Miskin

The Israel Land Fund, a group dedicated to restoring Jewish property in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, is reportedly looking east. According to AFP, the organization plans to begin buying historically Jewish properties in Jordan as well.

Many Jews purchased land in what is now Jordan during the British Mandate, when such land was seen primarily as part of the greater Land of Israel. In 1946 Jordan declared independence as an Arab, Muslim country. Two years later, the state of Israel declared independence, and Jordan's rulers confiscated Jewish-owned land in their own country for state use.

Israel Land Fund chairman Aryeh King told AFP that his organization has proof that thousands of properties in present-day Jordan were historically Jewish, adding, "We have records of the ownership."

The plan is in its early stages, and no properties in Jordan have been bought to date. Purchasing would likely take place with the help of Jews in Europe, King said, as Israelis are prohibited from buying land in Jordan under Jordanian law.

The same Jordanian law is enforced by the Palestinian Authority, which views the sale of land to Jews or Israelis as a capital offense. The Land Fund manages to circumvent PA law by buying land through middlemen. In many cases, the group also helps Arab sellers to flee the country in order to avoid PA retribution.

Jewish properties bought or reclaimed by the Israel Land Fund in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria are guarded and used to build homes for Jewish activists. It was not clear what would be done with property reclaimed in Jordan.

AFP noted that if the plan were to succeed, it could cause anger in Jordan, where anti-Israel sentiment runs high despite a 1994 peace treaty.
Guest Comment: Here is a recap of the US longstanding record on Jerusalem and Obama's divergence from it, on more than one occassion. Now there is news that the Israel Land Fund is looking into purchasing land in Jordan which had been bought by Jews during the Mandate of Palestine, but was later confiscated by the Jordanian monarchs. In fact, Jordanian law makes it illegal to sell land to Israelis. How racist is that?

Although ownership of the land is documented, it will be paid for twice: Once by the original purchaser and again to the current owner. Will Obama interfere with this plan too?


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