Sunday, May 10, 2009

Parks Fortify Israel’s Claim to Jerusalem

The collision between Obama's White House and an Israeli Knesset headed by Netanyahu is moving inexorably closer with Netanyahu preparing conditions for peace talks that he must know will be simply unacceptable to Obama.

We have already learned of his demands that Obama must ensure a nuclear weapons free Iran and that the Palestinians must be willing to recognise Israel "as a Jewish state".

But some of his other actions are flying just under the radar, creating one of Israel's greatest weapons against a state of Palestine: Facts on the ground. And nowhere is this practice more evident than in East Jerusalem which Obama and the Palestinians expect to become the Palestinian capital.

Israel is building a series of parks in East Jerusalem, despite being asked by Robert H. Serry, the United Nations special Middle East coordinator, to avoid any action which could, "pour oil on the fire".

Nor is she hiding why she is doing so.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says, however, that it will push ahead. Interior Minister Eli Yishai said last week of the activity in one core area: “I intend to act on this issue with full strength. This is the land of our sovereignty. Jewish settlement there is our right.”

As part of the plan, garbage dumps and wastelands are being cleared and turned into lush gardens and parks, now already accessible to visitors who can walk along new footpaths and take in the majestic views, along with new signs and displays that point out significant points of Jewish history.

The parts of the city that are being developed were captured in the 1967 Middle East war, but their annexation by Israel was never recognized abroad.

At the same time, there is a battle for historical legitimacy. As part of the effort, archaeologists are finding indisputable evidence of ancient Jewish life here. Yet Palestinian officials and institutions tend to dismiss the finds as part of an effort to build a Zionist history here.

In other words, while the Israeli narrative that guides the government plan focuses largely — although not exclusively — on Jewish history and links to the land, the Palestinian narrative heightens tensions, pushing the Israelis into a greater confrontational stance.

The holy basin is an infinitely complicated landscape dotted with shrines and still hidden treasures of the three major monotheistic religions. The Christian sites, like the site known as the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was betrayed and prayed the night before his crucifixion, are run by various churches. An ancient Muslim cemetery is the property of an Islamic religious authority, the Waqf.

The government development plan was first agreed upon in 2005 “to strengthen the status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” as it states in its opening line, and became operational in the past year, with the prime minister’s office and the municipality jointly responsible.

When questioned by the New York Times about this the Israelis and the private firm responsible would only supply written answers stating that these improvements were for the benefit of everyone — Jews, Muslims and Christians — since it involves restoration and will bring more visitors to the area.

But the written answers also make it very clear that Israel has no intention of handing back East Jerusalem as UN Resolution 242 and subsequent others demand.

As an official in the prime minister’s office put it in his answer: “Jerusalem has been the eternal capital of the Jewish people for some 3,000 years and will remain the united capital of the State of Israel. Under Israeli sovereignty, for the first time in the history of Jerusalem, the different religious communities have enjoyed freedom of worship and the holy sites of all faiths have been protected.

He continued: “The government will continue to develop Jerusalem, development that will benefit all of Jerusalem’s diverse population and respect the different faiths and communities that together make Jerusalem such a special city.”

So Netanyahu's government are already laying down clear lines in the sand, lines in the sand which are guaranteed to bring him into conflict with Obama's administration.

Obama has already come into conflict with Israel's supporters on this subject, especially when he was forced to clarify comments he made to AIPAC in which he stated that Jerusalem must "remain undivided". This comment caused joy amongst the delegates. However, Obama's spokesman quickly pointed out that all Obama meant was that Jerusalem was, "not going to be divided by barbed wire and checkpoints as it was in 1948-1967." This clarification went down like a cup of cold sick.

So, Netanyahu already knows where Obama stands on this, and yet, must feel that this is perhaps a possible crack in Obama's armour, and it's one that he is going to employ all his forces against.

I am sure that Netanyahu is well aware that he has enough friends in the US Senate to cause Obama trouble, as votes in favour of Israel in the Senate tend to be so one sided - and so uniform in that support from both major parties - that they start to look unlike votes taken within a democratic chamber at all, and begin to resemble the kind of uniformity of opinion one would expect within a rather brutal third world dictatorship where independent thought was strictly forbidden.

I really hope Obama has a plan, because I would bet my last penny that Netanyahu's message is already whirring it's way out of faxes and email boxes all over the capital, detailing why Israel can't concede an inch of East Jerusalem. And Netahyahu knows as well as the rest of us that, if he can shelve plans which include East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, then he might be able to shelve the two state solution altogether. And that is, ultimately, what Netanyahu desires.

Obama is about to have a fight on his hands.

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