Analysis: Reading the Jerusalem construction script

Neither Palestinian foot-stomping, UN tongue-clucking, or US finger-wagging genuinely fazes anybody.

Maaleh Adumim 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Maaleh Adumim 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
When Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim announced Sunday that he would issue tenders for construction of 884 housing units in Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem - 763 units in Pisgat Ze'ev and 121 in Har Homa - he knew full well that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would be meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the next day, and jetting off to see US President George W. Bush that evening. Boim is also prescient enough to understand that such a move would necessarily incur the wrath of the Palestinians, and condemnation from the US and other parts of the world. Yet he went ahead with the announcement - on the eve of Jerusalem Day - anyhow. Why? Because when it comes to building in east Jerusalem, everybody pretty much follows a set script, and nobody in the government gets too excited these days when the Palestinians and the world read their usual lines. In fact, the announcement of the construction allows the government to show those coalition partners for whom such things are important - Shas, for instance - that Jerusalem is still dear to its heart. Pleasing Shas is even more important now than in the past, considering that the party is flexing its muscles and hinting at the possibility of bolting from the coalition over the child welfare payments issue. The announcement of the tenders also shores up a key Israeli policy point: The West Bank may be very much on the agenda, and somewhere down the line certain Arab neighborhoods on Jerusalem's periphery may be lopped off and given to the Palestinians, but the new Jerusalem neighborhoods established beyond the 1967 lines are not going anywhere. Under the script that accompanies announcements of building in the capital, the world protests, and the US issues a more mild denunciation. And that, indeed, is what happened. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement that said, "The secretary-general is deeply concerned at the recent announcement by the Israeli government to invite new tenders for construction in Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem." The statement went on to say that "Israel's continued construction in settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory is contrary to international law and to its commitments under the road-map and the Annapolis process." The US signaled displeasure, but was less harsh, with Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman, not even knowing where the housing units were to be built. "I'm not sure if it's West Bank or Jerusalem," she said. "But our position on the settlements is that we don't believe that any more settlements should be built, and we know that it exacerbates the tension when it comes to the negotiations with the Palestinians." And, indeed, the announcement did exacerbate the negotiations, or at least that was what the Palestinians said after the Olmert-Abbas meeting. "We will never accept the continuation of settlements, which is the main obstacle to peace," Abbas said at a press conference Monday in Ramallah. "If Israel does not halt these activities, it will be difficult to reach the political settlement," This was all standard fare. Inside the meeting, however, it is hard to believe that Abbas and Olmert, or even Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the chief PA negotiator Ahmed Qurei, spent much time on the issue. Why not? Because the Palestinians know where Israel stands, and Israel knows where the Palestinians stand. And with talks proceeding apace about how much of the West Bank will be ceded, and how many settlements evacuated, 880 units in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem are not going to gum up the works. Then why make a big deal of it? Because everyone has to go through the motions, at least publicly. But since everybody reacts in a very predictable manner, neither the Palestinian foot-stomping, nor the UN's tongue-clucking, or even the US's finger-wagging genuinely fazes anybody. Interestingly, one of the arguments Olmert and Livni have used in support of coming to an agreement with the Palestinians on borders quickly is that once the borders are established, then the brouhaha over every new unit in the settlements will fall by the wayside. The logic is that if Israel retains the main settlement blocks, then building in those blocks won't be an issue anymore, and that is, by the way, where most of the building is taking place. Ironically construction in those blocks might cease to be an issue even as building in Jerusalem still remains one, since the subject of Jerusalem - according to Olmert - will be left for last. But if, according to current signals, settlements like Ma'ale Adumim, Efrat and Givat Ze'ev will remain a part of the State of Israel under the shelf-agreement being negotiated, does anyone really believe that Pisgat Ze'ev, Har Homa, Ramot and Gilo won't?