Thursday, October 30, 2014
4 answers to why Israel is building 1000 new homes in Jerusalem
First, the facts (as reported by the Guardian): "The Israeli government is to advance construction plans for 1,000 housing units to be built in parts of Jerusalem that Palestinians demand for their future state". The plan is for building 400 units in in the city’s southeast neighborhood of Har Homa, and 660 homes in Ramat Shlomo (northeast). The denunciations came fast and furious: Jordan wants a Security Council meeting. The EU could only "condemn such an ill-judged and ill-timed decision". The US administration believes that Israel’s continued building across the Green Line is “incompatible with their stated desire to live in a peaceful society".
So why is Israel doing it? And why now? Here are four answers:
1. It is not doing anything
Israel is not "building"; it is "advancing" plans, or "planning", or "moving forward with" the idea of building more houses in Jerusalem. "The plans have existed for a long time", a member of Jerusalem's planning and housing committee said yesterday. In other words: Israel is using an old and secondhand trick of announcing and re-announcing old plans. If this explanation is the closer one to the actual reality of Jerusalem, it means that the whole brouhaha is not over construction but rather over a PR stunt. Of course, the brouhaha might still be justifiable based on the argument that PR stunts of this kind are inflammatory, and that they reveal Israel's true intentions for Jerusalem. The PR option also doesn't answer our second question: why now?
2. Election season
The threat of a prompt and very early election was supposedly eliminated last week, but is it hardly a secret that the Netanyahu coalition is already gearing toward the next round of elections. Yesterday, the opposition-within-the-
coalition bit Netanyahu with the approval of the conversion bill. So there is still a crisis – now with the Jewish Home party, which is threatening to leave the coalition if the bill passes – and a strong sense that whatever happens, this coalition is probably good for no more than another year or so. That is, the next election will come next winter, before or after the end of 2015.
If elections are coming, Netanyahu needs to make sure to cater to his base. It is true that no other leader is even close to being seen as a viable challenger to the PM, but in Israel elections are for parties not personalities, and Netanyahu will need the votes and the seats of the Likud Party for him to keep the job. He knows that when Likud PMs lost their bid in recent decades it was mostly because they were challenged from the right. If Lieberman's Israel Beitenu, or the new party of former minister Moshe Kahlon take too many seats away from Likud – and then decide to join a coalition not headed by Netanyahu – the PM can be the most popular politician and still lose.
So Netanyahu is crafting his message for the next election by making Jerusalem the focal point. He did it once, in the mid Nineties, when the "Peres-will-divide-Jerusalem" campaign gave him the election. He might want to do it again.
3. Jerusalem unrest
Netanyahu's decision to build – or to announce that he is going to build – in Jerusalem can not be separated from the reality of recent weeks in the capital of Israel. Some media outlets are already tagging the situation a "silent Intifada". Stones and Molotov cocktails are already being thrown, there are clashes with police forces, there are threats, there is a growing sense of insecurity, there are terror attacks – in the last of which a baby girl and a tourist were killed.
The attention of a nation has turned to Jerusalem, where a battle is being waged. And the PM is using whatever tools he has at his disposal to send a clear message – to Israelis (I am not going to let Jerusalem slip out of control), to Jerusalemites (I am going to make the necessary investments to keep the city safe and thriving), to the Palestinians (we will not be deterred by unrest), and to the world (don't even dream of using the recent unrest as a pretext to open the "question" of Jerusalem). To a certain extent, Netanyahu is merely turning to the old formulation of "proper Zionist response" to unrest – the response always being more construction.
4. A matter of principle
In the last few weeks Israel has, once again, made an effort to demonstrate to the world that Jerusalem is not a negotiable issue. Israel – and this is an important distinction to understand – differentiates the "settlements" from "Jerusalem". Hence, when the Netanyahu government agreed to a temporary settlement freeze in order to have talks with the Palestinian Authority, it was understood that Israel will not freeze Jerusalem.
Jerusalem became an issue again when a dispute over construction and the moving of Jewish residents to an Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem soiled Netanyahu’s visit to Washington last month. President Rivlin asked the world to "understand" that Jerusalem is Israel's capital. Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed that US opposition to Jews living in any of the neighborhoods of Jerusalem goes against "American values" (note that Tzipi Livni also "defended the right" of Jews to move into the neighborhood of Silwan, a move that irked the American administration).
Haaretz reported that day: "Once again, the reason for the crisis was construction in the settlements beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem. At the meeting in the White House, Obama brought up the settlements issue, but in a general way. But as soon as Netanyahu’s convoy left the White House, U.S. officials issued a variety of denunciations over Israel’s construction plans in East Jerusalem and occupying buildings in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan. The denunciations astounded the prime minister and his men".
A "crisis"? Indeed. But the government of Israel doesn't accept the formulation "construction in the settlements beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem". In fact, if Netanyahu has proved anything in recent weeks it is that he was willing to up the ante in his battle to keep Israel's hands free to build and develop Jerusalem.
So what is it then?
Easy answer: a combination of all four – but one could still attempt to measure the percentage of each of these ingredients in this Jerusalem stew (and yes, one's measurement would surely depend on one's political beliefs).