THE BLOG
12/12/2014 10:05 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2015

East Jerusalem Cannot Breathe

In another non-binding parliamentary vote, Ireland joined a growing number of its European neighbors to declare support for a Palestinian state. Meanwhile, Palestinian minister Ziad Abu Ein was killed in disputed clashes with Israeli forces, and Israeli defense minister Moshe "Bugi" Ya'alon, without knowing he was being recorded, promised settlement activity would increase further when Barack Obama is no longer the president of the United States. These three trends -- escalating violence against Palestinians and Israelis, burgeoning support across Europe for a Palestinian state, and the inexorable augmentation of settlements inside what would become the State of Palestine -- formed the backdrop for an hour-and-a-half-long discussion on Dec. 10 at New America NYC before a packed room that spanned from the British Mandate to the Temple Mount and at various stops along the way.

During a talk dubbed "Jerusalem: Flashpoint for Regional & Global Conflict," Robert Wright, the veteran author and creator of Bloggingheads, and Daniel Seidemann, the renowned Israeli attorney and "a big deal," according to New America Foundation Israel-Palestine Initiative director Lisa Goldman, talked about what may or may not be the third intifada and its thorny roots. Wright began by asking about the Green Line, the internationally-recognized border that runs right through Jerusalem and is only nominal by now, since the Israeli government put the eastern half of the city under "quasi-annexation," as Wright put it. Since 1967, Seidemann said, the Israelis have been "expropriating" Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and, at present, more than 200,000 Israelis live in what is theoretically the future capital of Palestine. The city is now two-and-a-half times larger than it has ever been in Jewish history, added Seidemann, who said he was able to walk around East Jerusalem during the second intifada without trouble. No longer.

"Tensions have gotten worse in recent months," Wright said, going on to inquire what changed since the time of suicide bombings, which largely ended 10 years ago. "This is a perfect storm," Seidemann said, adding, "What are the detonators that ignite things and what are the underlying causes?" The response to the second intifada involved smashing up dissent among Palestinians, along with massive home demolitions and accelerated settlements going deeper into the West Bank, cutting East Jerusalem off as it has become surrounded by "enclaves that are planted for ideological reasons," to put facts on the ground that are intended to preclude negotiations. There is not a single national embassy in the entire world in Jerusalem, including the United States, which like every other country that has diplomatic relations with Israel has their embassy in Tel Aviv, the original capital before the state was created. This time around, Seidemann said, "This is an intifada that is being led by kids." They are being incited, as the official explanation goes, by Mahmoud Abbas, who Seidemann said is described as a "bipolar crackhead." (Wright looked enamored of the phrase.) Currently, the Palestinian Authority, Seidemann declared, "is sitting on the cork of a volcano."

"American lives will be in harm's way if there is a hemorraging conflict in and around" Jerusalem, Seidemann declaimed. He told unnamed Republican senators, while on a tour of the city, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly claims to support a two-state solution while also opposing "any compromise on Jerusalem. I understand that to mean, 'I oppose the two-state solution.' What do you think? They found that to be a compelling argument." However, this is "politically suicidal" for them, Seidemann added, due to pressure from groups like AIPAC, with whom he says he has a "cordial" relationship. There is only one public in Jerusalem from the official Israeli point of view: "the Palestinians are permanently disenfranchised," he said.

"Jews lost properties in Sheikh Jarrah" and other places in the 1948 war, Seidemann continued. "Israeli legislation allows for Jews to recover those properties." Concurrently, he deadpanned, "there are rumors to the effect that there were a number of Palestinians who also lost property in 1948." Wright chuckled knowingly. "Six or seven hundred thousand strong. Some of them live down the block. They lost it in the same war and they may not recover their property." Settler groups, "small in number" but "consequential in impact," have become the beneficiaries of an Israeli government that has "outsourced" a lot of authority to them. "The settler DNA is injected into government." Seidemann bemoaned how "many on the Israeli left whine about how Israeli democracy is going down the tubes," whereas he feels that "Israel has a very feisty, but flawed democracy in Israel proper. When you enter Silwan [a contested Palestinian area in the city that is being colonized], Israeli democracy morphs into a regime."

As for the Temple Mount, the controversy over Jewish prayer on the Muslim holy site -- which is built on the ancient ruins of the Jewish temple -- is relatively new. Uri Ariel, the minister of construction, wants to see the building of the Third Temple. "Twenty years ago," Seidemann said, "the Temple Mount was not a contested site." Recently, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has expressed serious concern, since according to the status quo Jordan is the custodian of the place. "Netanyahu has failed to rein in the pyromaniacs in his cabinet, and that is the real danger," he added, alluding to the early elections slated for March that may make Netanyahu look like a flaming leftist.

"We have seen the ascendancy of those people who have weaponized faith," Seidemann argued. The "radicalization" endemic in the atmosphere has made Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen) say that "Jews are defiling the Temple Mount," he said, which he "regrets" since Abu Mazen said in the past that he recognized a Jewish attachment to the city. "This is not a religious freedom issue," Seidemann emphatically pointed out, referring to voices from the Pentagon who also see it as "a national, regional, and global security issue." The military men "understand that the relationship of the Arab and Muslim world to the West depends in many ways on how people see themselves vis-à-vis the Temple Mount. A sense of violation is dangerous," Seidemann said. He was the victim last July of an attack after visiting a Palestinian friend in East Jerusalem. "I was perceived as an occupier," he said. "When you crush legitimate forms of protest, as a variation on the theme of Robert Kennedy, you leave the field open to people who don't ask permission."

"The Palestinians of East Jerusalem are not predisposed to violence," Seidemann said, after Wright pressed him to continue on a line of inquiry about why people are seeing outbreaks of bloodshed. "A perfect storm of events have led them to say, 'We don't have a voice. We are Arab. We are run by a government that treats us at best with apathy and at worst as an alien, hostile population." (Unlike everywhere else in Palestine, East Jerusalemites live under the official jurisdiction of the Israelis.) They feel like they are "enemies of the state and the state is not theirs." Wright suggested that these episodes, their "moral culpability aside," "shouldn't shock us," adding, "I assume that's not a super-common view in Israel." The choice for Israel, Seidemann concluded, is whether they will continue to live as "a ghetto with an army." On the attitudes of Palestinians in the eastern half of a city both peoples claim as their own, he added, they believe "we have no future. That's the energy on the streets. And they're right."

Wright asked if Seidemann was ever able to put a fellow Israeli "in the shoes of a Palestinian in East Jerusalem." Seidemann countered that he was asking if he's a missionary. "Well, we need missionaries," Wright countered. Meanwhile, the oppressed population of East Jerusalem is telling the entire world they can't breathe.