The year the US snubbed the consensus

Are Gilo and Ramat Shlomo - along with Pisgat Ze'ev, Ramot and French Hill - now on the negotiating table?

Jerusalem 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The past year was a big one for news coming out of Jerusalem – some of it decidedly positive, some negative and some that will change the political landscape for a long time to come.
The cultural scene saw many encouraging developments.
Heralded the world over, the Israel Museum was visited by nearly 140,000 visitors in the first month it was reopened after a $100 million refurbishment. And a summer of entertainment activities – including the new Monday night Balabusta events at Mahaneh Yehuda market, the ever-popular Hutzot Hayotzer festival and city-sponsored street parties – delighted locals and tourists alike.
Despite some serious rioting in Silwan, Shuafat and Isawiya, there was no repeat of the 2008 terror attacks perpetrated by residents of the Arab neighborhoods.
Though for a short period there were weekly haredi protests in Har Hotzvim over the Intel factory there operating on Shabbat, they didn’t come close in intensity to last year’s demonstrations against the opening of the Carta parking lot on Shabbat. In fact, the largest haredi rally this year – in support of the Ashkenazi parents from Emmanuel who were imprisoned for their refusal to comply with a Supreme Court ruling ordering them to send their daughters to Beit Ya’acov with Sephardi pupils – was not connected to Jerusalem, though it was held in the capital’s haredi neighborhoods.
Undoubtedly, the most widely publicized stories of the year had to do with construction: the Holyland debacle, Mayor Nir Barkat’s Gan Hamelech plan and the US reaction to the approval of construction in Jewish neighborhoods over the Green Line.
In April, the entire country listened and watched with a mixture of horror and voyeuristic delight as a cast of high-profile characters were arrested for corruption over their involvement in Bayit Vagan’s Holyland project.
Locals, who have long regarded the towers as an insufferable eyesore, say in hindsight they could only have been conceived in sin.
The extent of the alleged fraud, leading to the arrests of, among others, former city councillor Yehoshua Pollack, businessman Hillel Charni, former city engineer Uri Sheetrit and former Ehud Olmert aide Shula Zaken, was met with shock, to say the least. But it was the arrest of former mayor and Yad Sarah founder Uri Lupolianski that left most of the city, especially the haredi community, reeling in surprise. But no matter, it is said if he indeed accepted a bribe, the proceeds were donated to charity.
THE EPISODES that will probably have the most farreaching consequences are the fallout over the announcements of construction in neighborhoods built after 1967.
On a mild evening in November, Gilo residents went to sleep secure in the knowledge that they and their children could live in the neighborhood as long as they chose. To their astonishment, the approval of 900 housing units by the local planning and construction committee the following day sparked unprecedented backlash.
Despite a West Bank construction freeze announced by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that September, both the government and the municipality insisted it didn’t apply to Jerusalem. Nonetheless, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs harshly criticized the decision, declaring, “At a time when we are working to relaunch negotiations, these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed. Neither party should engage in efforts or take actions that could unilaterally preempt, or appear to preempt, negotiations.”
The problem was, it seems, that few on the Israeli side realized that building in primarily Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem was an action that could preempt negotiations.
As summed up by a resident interviewed by former Jerusalem Post correspondent Abe Selig, “Since when is anyone thinking about giving Gilo away? And if we’re not giving it away, why on earth can’t we build here?” The country quickly internalized the new reality and when, during US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit in March, the approval of 1,600 units in Ramat Shlomo was widely seen as an unforgivable faux pas both here and abroad. Relief at Biden’s mild rebuke during a Tel Aviv University address was short-lived. The Obama administration evidently felt his admonition was not strong enough, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton soon added her own censure, calling the move “insulting to the United States.”
While the government made it clear that it had no intention of canceling the plan, Interior Minister Eli Yishai apologized for the timing of the announcement.
“The approval was a purely technical matter, and we had no intention of insulting or seeking a confrontation with the US vice president,” he said.
Netanyahu pledged to set up a committee to formulate regulations that would prevent similar announcements at sensitive times in the future.
Since the Ramat Shlomo incident, there has been speculation of a de facto construction freeze in east Jerusalem. Though some 433 units have been approved since Biden’s visit, the Post recently reported that in the three months before he came, more than 3,000 units passed some level of approval.
Though former prime ministers have discussed incorporating the capital’s Arab neighborhoods into a future Palestinian state, the Jewish areas over the Green Line but within the municipal borders have always been viewed as consensus neighborhoods, even by many on the Left.
“Today I wouldn’t say that Ramat Shlomo is a test,” dovish city councillor Meir Margalit told Post reporter Melanie Lidman. “Today I’d say that Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan are the test, not Ramat Shlomo. Today it doesn’t matter if they build 1,000 houses in Ramat Shlomo. It would bother me more if Jews took a single house in Sheikh Jarrah or Silwan. One house in Sheikh Jarrah is worse than 1,000 houses in Ramat Shlomo.”
When construction in Pisgat Ze’ev was approved in August, Meretz city councillor Pepe Alalu criticized the timing of the plan but not the substance.
“I’ve always said that I don’t have a problem with building in Pisgat Ze’ev in general,” Alalu said.
According to Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of the Research Foundation for Defense of Democracies, President Barack Obama’s condemnation of the construction projects in Gilo and Ramat Shlomo appears to represent a rather drastic change in US policy.
“The president’s approach, which differed drastically from what his predecessor George W. Bush put in writing, appears to assume that anything over the 1967 lines is Palestinian. Of course, this approach challenges the facts on the ground,” he says.
Indeed, he adds, Washington has – sometimes reluctantly – seen all of the capital’s Jewish neighborhoods remaining in Israeli hands in a final-status agreement.
“The tacit understanding in Washington in recent years has been that the majority of Israeli residents living in the cluster of communities extending eastward from Jerusalem – totaling some 200,000 people – would be folded into Israel’s final borders, should a peace deal be struck with the Palestinians. Because these communities extend beyond the 1967 borders, it was expected that land swaps or other deals would be made to accommodate Palestinian demands,” he says.
But with direct talks with the Palestinian Authority already under way, could the change in the consensus in Washington over Jewish neighborhoods over the Green Line in Jerusalem impact their future? “As we have seen in the past, everything is negotiable.
But if the president views these areas as Palestinian territorial concessions, we may assume that he will ask Israel to cede territory elsewhere on the Israeli side of the Green Line,” says Schanzer.
With the construction freeze due to expire in a few weeks and the fragile peace talks preempted by a terror attack, it is too soon to draw conclusions about Jerusalem’s future. But it seems that the politically, religiously and culturally fractured city has become just a little bit more divided in the past year.