Analyze This: How a mount became more than a molehill

Issue of Har Homa is more about timing than concrete facts.

Har Homa 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Har Homa 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The next time US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice touches down in Jerusalem, it might be wise for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to take her on a visit to a place she has apparently never been: Har Homa. The Jerusalem neighborhood - or settlement, depending on your viewpoint - has apparently been much on Rice's mind of late, along with many others in the international community. Two weeks ago, Rice criticized the issuing of a tender to build 307 new housing units in the neighborhood on the capital's southern edge, saying "this doesn't help build confidence" in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process. Yesterday again, she took part in a meeting of the Quartet ministers in Paris, which concluded with a statement that expressed "concern" specifically over the planned Har Homa construction. It is not so strange, at this stage, that Rice or the other Quartet ministers should voice disapproval over any new Israeli building over the Green Line - the 1949 armistice lines often (mistakenly) referred to as the 1967 border. It is, though, somewhat odd for a number of reasons that their criticism, especially on Rice's part, should be so focused specifically on Har Homa. As Israeli officials have repeatedly declared in defending the planned enlargement of Har Homa, the community lies entirely within the Jerusalem municipal boundaries. Granted, those boundaries extend well across the Green Line, and have never been officially recognized by the international community. But there is constant new construction in the Israel neighborhoods built since 1967, which of course also includes the revived Jewish Quarter in the Old City, and much of it is far more extensive than what is planned for Har Homa. What's more, although Har Homa sits just north of Bethlehem and just south of the Palestinian villages of Sur Bahir and Umm Tuba, it doesn't abut directly against, or limit or cut off access to, any of them. In fact, Har Homa sits in a relatively unpopulated border area - unlike such northern Jerusalem neighborhoods as Pisgat Ze'ev and Neve Ya'acov, which sit within heavily populated Palestinian areas immediately adjacent. So why does Har Homa draw such attention, when new building in comparable areas over the Green Line - and even in settlements far deeper in the West Bank - do not? It's all a matter of timing - specifically when Har Homa was built. The planning and approval process for the neighborhood dates back to the early 1990s government of Yitzhak Rabin. But the actual construction only started in 1997, during the premiership of Binyamin Netanyahu and the mayoralty of Ehud Olmert. Thus, its groundbreaking was perceived as an attempt by them to undermine the spirit of Oslo (even though it was technically not a violation of the accords), and there was immediate and widespread international condemnation of the project. But despite its formal protests, the Clinton administration vetoed the subsequent Security Council condemning Har Homa; by the time the Barak government continued the construction there, the issue had dropped off the agenda. Once again, the issue of Har Homa is more about timing than concrete facts. In his famed April 14, 2004 letter to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, President George W. Bush referred to the "new realities on the ground" that make a full return to the 1949 lines "unrealistic" - and if this doesn't apply to Har Homa, it's hard to say exactly where else they would. That's why it's troubling that Rice would repeatedly single out construction in a Jerusalem neighborhood that sits within the Israeli side of the security fence and is contiguous with the former border community of Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, and bunch it together with criticism of the "natural growth" construction the Olmert government is still permitting far deeper over the Green Line. In specifically citing Har Homa, the Bush administration is certainly not engendering confidence in the current post-Annapolis negotiations with an Israeli mainstream that supports a two-state solution, but not one in which a Har Homa would not be included on our side of the border. Those Israelis know exactly where Har Homa is - and perhaps it's time Secretary Rice took the trouble to learn the same. [email protected]