Settlement Dispute Shifts to Jerusalem
By David Dolan
The argument between the Israeli and American governments over Jewish settlement building in the disputed territories continued unabated during July, with the focus shifting to construction inside the holy city of Jerusalem. Ironically, the particular area in the center of the vortex, located just northeast of the sacred Temple Mount, was once the headquarters of Haj Amin Husseini, the Muslim "Grand Mufti" of Jerusalem who partnered with Adolph Hitler in his partially successful attempt to annihilate all Jews living in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East during World War II.
Comments by US President Barack Obama, apparently designed to ease Jewish anxieties over what many perceive as his administration's growing anti-Israel policy tilt, had the opposite effect in Israeli government circles. Some commentators said officials felt the American leader displayed subtle contempt toward America's longtime ally in his mid-July meeting with several top American Jewish dignitaries.
Meanwhile tensions remained high with strife-torn Iran during the month, and with its main regional puppet force, Lebanon's Hizbullah militia. Arab and international media reports that Israeli warships-one possibly equipped with nuclear weapons-were allowed by Egypt to move through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea in June and early July, and so able to easily head toward the adjacent Persian Gulf, raised alarm bells in Tehran. A senior American official said later in the month that the United States remains committed to Israel's security, and has a plan to thwart bellicose Iran's apparent ambition to intimidate US allies in the turbulent region via its nuclear program.
In the north, Israel's armed forces remained on high alert to counter any possible Hizbullah or Syrian military activity directed at the Jewish State. Army leaders were said to be concerned that the extremist Iranian regime might order Hizbullah rocket strikes to tie up IDF forces and thus help deflect any Israeli action against their ongoing nuclear program.
Meanwhile a large Hizbullah rocket stockpile blew up in a warehouse in south Lebanon, where the rogue Shiite militia is not supposed to be operating at all according to the 2006 UN ceasefire accord that ended the Second Lebanon war, let alone restocking its rocket supplies. The Lebanese government later said it thwarted a plan by radical Muslims to kidnap United Nations soldiers stationed in the area.
More international and local reports were issued during the month condemning Israel's conduct of the military operation against Hamas militia forces in the Gaza Strip early this year. Israeli officials countered that the context of the short conflict-in other words, the unprovoked Hamas rocket attacks upon Jewish civilian communities stretching back several years-was not even mentioned in some of the reports.
ISRAEL ENDURES FRESH AMERICAN REBUKE
Many Israeli political analysts averred during July that it is becoming clearer every day that their small country is now dealing with the most unsympathetic American government administration since George Bush senior served as president from early 1989 until January 1993. They said this was confirmed when State Department officials summoned Israel's new ambassador to Washington, Dr. Michael Oren, to receive a dressing down the third weekend of the month.
The burning issue American diplomats wished to immediately discuss was a surprising one to senior Israeli officials-small-scale Jewish residential building near Judaism's holiest site on earth, Jerusalem's ancient Temple Mount. Specifically, the topic was a private plan, recently approved by municipal officials, to convert a former Arab hotel less than one mile north of Jerusalem's walled Old City into some 20 apartment units designed to house Orthodox Jewish families.
Palestinian leaders have strongly opposed the building project in what is known as the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood, even though the sprawling historic structure, which once served as Haj Husseini's local headquarters, was originally owned by Jews and was purchased from absentee Arab owners in 1985 by American Jewish millionaire Irwin Moscowitz. The grand structure had sat empty since Israeli military forces captured the area, just south of the modern French Hill neighborhood at the foot of Mount Scopus, during the 1967 Six Day war.
State Department officials later confirmed Israeli media reports that Ambassador Oren was told in no uncertain terms that the world's reigning superpower considers any Jewish building in the eastern half of Israel's capital city to be a serious violation of previous Israeli government commitments. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on July 20 that "our views are not new, that this kind of construction is the type that should be subject to permanent-status negotiations." He added dryly that "We are concerned that unilateral actions taken by the Israelis or the Palestinians cannot prejudge the outcome of these negotiations."
Apparently fearing further breeches in Israel's strategically vital relationship with the United States, Ambassador Oren later tried to downplay the dispute, telling reporters that "There is no crisis in Israel-U.S. relations. Here we are talking about disagreements over certain subjects, very, very specific ones." But Israeli commentators said the State Department action was highly unusual, and should be read as at least a mild rebuke of current Israeli government policy concerning the peace process, if not much more than that. However later in the month, Israeli government officials confirmed media reports that they are now close to agreeing to implement a temporary construction freeze as part of new understandings being negotiated in Washington.
FACTS ON THE GROUND
Although the latest chapter in the settlement building dispute is focused in an area considered "occupied Arab territory" by the United States and most other governments and the international media, Israeli commentators pointed out that the prestigious Hebrew University is located further east of the contested site, and its umbilical connection to the world's only Jewish-ruled state is largely universally recognized. Along with that, Israel's national police headquarters is located very close to the site, along with one of the city's premier five star hotels, the former Hyatt Regency. The idea that Israel will somehow evacuate all Jews from the area, which would include thousands of residents being uprooted from the burgeoning French Hill neighborhood, is quite absurd, they opined.
Indeed, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told his cabinet ministers on July 19-just one day after Ambassador Oren was summoned to the State Department-that "I would like to reemphasize united Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel. Our sovereignty over it cannot be challenged. This means that residents of Jerusalem may purchase apartments in all parts of the city." He then went on to strongly hint that the new Obama administration's complete building ban demand is actually racist and discriminatory in nature: "In recent years, hundreds of apartments in Jewish neighborhoods have been purchased by or rented to Arab residents, and we did not interfere."
Israeli press reports said Netanyahu later privately castigated President Obama's total building halt campaign during a closed meeting with his inner security cabinet, which was focused on the Iranian nuclear threat among other pressing issues. He reportedly told his top security ministers that the charismatic US leader was in essence aiding Israel's enemies, and therefore actually putting back the peace process, by publicly demanding an immediate and total construction freeze, especially inside Jerusalem's municipal boundaries.
Exasperated over what he sees as an unnecessary dispute, Netanyahu was said to have rhetorically asked his top ministers if Obama really expected that the leader of Israel's nationalist political camp-who oversaw the controversial construction of the Har Homa neighborhood in southeast Jerusalem when he was last Premier in the late 1990s-would now block the building of a mere 20 new Jewish apartments next to Judaism's most sacred ground on earth after allowing some 20,000 apartment units to go up in Har Homa ten years ago. "If I didn't cave in to Bill Clinton then, I certainly won't to his wife or Barack Obama now," one news report claimed he stated.
OBAMA ACCEPTS RACIST ARAB DEMAND?
Demonstrating that the Prime Minister's position is vigorously supported by everyone in his ruling party, the most liberal Likud cabinet member, Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor, who also serves as a deputy premier, forcefully endorsed Netanyahu's public statements. Going even further by turning the tables on Obama, he insisted that it was the new Democratic party administration in Washington that was going back on previous agreements made with government leaders in Jerusalem.
Meridor noted that America's last president, George W. Bush, had orally accepted Ariel Sharon's 2004 request to continue "natural growth" construction within existing contested communities, while halting any brand new full scale community development in lands claimed by the Palestinians, as Israel has complied with (apart from a few small outposts that have arisen without government permission and are in the process of being dismantled).
This request was then incorporated into Bush's Road Map peace plan, subsequently endorsed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It called for a total Israeli building freeze, but only when the Palestinian leadership blocked all organized Arab terror attacks upon Jews. The verbal accord came after Sharon agreed to the painful White House request to evacuate all Israeli residents and soldiers from the Gaza Strip, which occurred one year later. "It is of great importance to us that what the (Bush) administration agreed to is not overlooked," Meridor stated at a news conference in Jerusalem.
That the first ever African American president is apparently endorsing what is widely perceived in Israel as the Palestinian's extremely racist demand for an independent state containing few if any Jews inside its borders-an idea from another, much darker era-is highly disappointing to many Israelis, and not just to conservative religious Jews.
In fact, some commentators said it was progressive secularist Jews, who generally viewed Obama's electoral victory as a triumph for civil rights and equality in America and a beacon of light for the world, who are the most disappointed that the US leader has seemingly adopted the PLO's traditional "Judenrein" (the Nazi term for "clean of Jews") statehood demand as his own, instead of challenging the same as his Republican predecessor did, at least to some extent.
Many pundits noted that Israel contains over one million Arab citizens with full voting rights and elected representatives in the Knesset, while the envisioned Palestinian state will apparently be "Jew-less" as one radio commentator succinctly put it in English, despite the fact that it is proposed to arise along the spine of the Jewish people's ancient ancestral biblical heartland.
CONCERN OR CONTEMPT?
With voices of concern rising in America over the Obama administration's policies regarding Israel-even among many of his staunchest Jewish supporters-the President summoned 15 of the country's top Jewish leaders to meet with him at the While House on July 13. The meeting had mixed results, according to Israeli media accounts, with many participants said to be shocked over what was seen as an attitude bordering on contempt for America's main Middle East ally. This was reportedly demonstrated most glaringly in Obama's insistence that if Israelis want his valuable assistance in arriving at a final peace accord with the Palestinians, they must first "engage in serious self reflection" before this lofty goal will be achievable.
Commentators pointed out that the American leader seemed to be averring that Israel is mainly responsible for the current peace process impasse, instead of the divided Palestinians, ruled by the Palestinian Authority in Jordan's former West Bank and the radical Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip. In other works, only if and when the Israeli people and their leaders stop and think-and apparently alter their intransigent ways-will a final peace accord be reachable.
The American editor of the prestigious Commentary magazine, Jonathan Tobin, reacted to the meeting in a Jerusalem Post editorial, saying the popular President's reported remark reflected his "breathtaking condescension toward the Jewish state," with its seeming "implicit dismissal of the last 16 years of Middle East history." This evaluation was echoed by other commentators in Israel, and was said to reflect the reaction of many senior Israeli government officials.
In particular, Tobin complained that President Obama was downplaying or ignoring the extremely costly and difficult actions that several Israeli governments had undertaken to try to implement previous peace accords with the Palestinians, despite ongoing terror attacks and threats of annihilation from Shiite Muslim Iran and its local agents Hizbullah and Hamas. Such actions included withdrawing all IDF soldiers from six major Arab urban centers and many villages during the mid 1990s, transferring weapons and governmental power to Palestinian Authority officials and security forces (with the weapons sometimes later turned against Jews), and evacuating 23 civilian communities and army outposts in the Gaza Strip and parts of northern Samaria in 2005.
Tobin reflected the thinking of not a few Israeli commentators by pointing to what he termed Obama's "penchant for quarreling with Israel," adding that the US leader was apparently "proud of it." The conservative commentator added that "a majority of American Jews who voted for Obama last year did not back him because they anticipated that he would pick pointless fights with Israel to advance a peace process that Palestinians scorn."
CRUISING THE SUEZ CANAL
PM Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials have consistently stated that the most pressing issue they face is not how to achieve a final peace accord with Palestinian Authority leaders-whose rule is severely challenged by the popular Muslim fundamentalist Hamas movement. The Iranian nuclear program poses an imminent mortal threat to Israel's very existence, they aver, and therefore that issue obviously has a much higher priority at present than restarting the stalemated peace process. Israeli leaders hope the recent unrest inside Iran will help convince the Obama administration that this is indeed the case.
Seemingly proving once again just how serious the issue is to Israel's current political and military leadership, three IDF naval vessels were ordered to pass through the strategic Suez Canal during late June and early July, according to Arab and international media reports that were neither officially confirmed nor denied by Israeli officials (although several media outlets quoted anonymous Israeli military sources as confirming that the crossings occurred). Of particular importance, one of the three vessels was a German-built submarine widely thought to carry nuclear-tipped Israeli cruise missiles.
Small IDF boats have been allowed in the past to traverse the Egyptian run canal on their way to the southern Israeli Red Sea port of Eilat. However never before has one of Israel's three Dolphin-class subs been allowed to pass through the channel which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Missile boats like the two Sa'ar-5 class warships that reportedly crossed into the Red Sea-which connects with the Persian Gulf that straddles Iran's western coast-have also never before received permission from Cairo to utilize the mostly commercial waterway, despite a treaty between Cairo and Jerusalem that supposedly allows such crossings as long as the vessels have no hostile intentions toward Egypt
Ironically one of the warships, the Eilat, was named after an Israeli destroyer that was sunk by Soviet-backed Egyptian naval forces shortly after the Six Day war, at the cost of 47 Israeli lives.
SENDING STERN SIGNALS
In a transparent sign that the Mubarak government wanted the Israeli naval crossings to receive widespread publicity-as an evident warning to hostile Shiite political and clerical leaders in Iran that Cairo will at least quietly side with Israel in any military showdown over the rogue regime's nuclear program-Egyptian surface warships actually accompanied the submarine as it traversed the 119 mile long French-built waterway, which began operating in 1869.
International military analysts agreed that the unprecedented Israeli naval crossings were indeed designed to send an unequivocal public warning to Tehran that many regional countries, and not just Israel, will not sit still as Iran develops nuclear weapons. This perception was later buttressed by American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Speaking during a July 21 visit to Thailand, she revealed that the US government has "contingency plans" in place to extend a nuclear defense umbrella over allied Arab countries in the region if Iran builds such weapons of mass destruction, which many experts say is only one or two years away at most. Some Israeli commentators said the statement seemed to suggest that the Obama administration may be resigned to Iran acquiring such weapons, which Israel clearly is not.
America's top diplomat stated that Iran would be no safer from foreign attack, nor a more powerful force in the Middle East, if it produces nuclear weapons. "We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment: that if the United States extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to develop the military capacity of those allies in the Gulf, it is unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer." Israeli defense officials were said to have been basically pleased with the comment, saying it seemed to signal a more realistic American policy concerning Iran that probably resulted from the recent violent Iranian government crackdown on civilian demonstrators protesting the apparently rigged June 12 presidential election.
In another possible indication of an evolving US government policy, Vice President Joe Biden said on July 5 that "Israel can determine for itself-it's a sovereign nation-what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else." However he also added that this was the case "whether we agree or not" with Israel's decisions. The outspoken politician had earlier bluntly warned the Netanyahu government that it would not receive American backing if it chose a military option to halt Iran's nuclear program.
REPROACH ON GAZA
Egyptian mediators attempted once again during July to put an end to the bitter rift between the Palestinian Authority and the radical Hamas movement. However the talks in Cairo ended once again in failure
Meanwhile the Israeli government and military establishment came under fresh international condemnation during the month as several additional reports were issued alleging widespread Israeli army abuses during last winter's "Cast Lead" operation against Hamas militia forces in the Gaza Strip. One report received special attention in Israel since it was issued by a left-wing domestic group called "Breaking the Silence," which it later emerged is partially funded by the British and Dutch embassies in Tel Aviv, along with grants from the European Union.
The report quoted 26 anonymous reserve and regular IDF soldiers who claimed they saw such abuses as the use of Gaza civilians as human shields against Hamas fire and the unlawful deployment of phosphorous shells in civilian areas. The army replied that there was no "silence" to break since all attributed abuse complaints are investigated, whereas the report's vague allegations were difficult if not impossible to check since the claimants refused to be identified.
In these times of continuing regional strife and peril, it is comforting to remember and proclaim that "You oh Lord abide forever, and Your Name to all generations. You will arise and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to be gracious to her, for the appointed time has come" (Psalm 102:12-13).