Yesterday, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) visited Jerusalem, in what turned out to be another ordinary identification visit with Israel.
Jerusalem has been in the headlines in recent weeks with provocations and announcements of new Israeli settlement development and increasing tension in the region. None of this appeared to be on the Senators' visit.
At a press conference Lieberman and McCain held at the end of their visit, they criticized Mitchell for his comments about United States loan guarantees and repeated the tired mantra that the US-Israel relationship is better than ever. However, neither Lieberman nor McCain mentioned the reality they encountered in Jerusalem. Come to think of it, probably neither of them encountered the true reality in Jerusalem during their visit. Instead, the senior senators opted to visit an imagined Jerusalem, where there is only one side, the Israeli side, and Palestinians are at best, scenery.
So which Jerusalem did McCain and Lieberman not visit?
They did not visit the Jerusalem that is churning under the surface, the Jerusalem that almost every day, for weeks, has been announcing new settlement construction, the Jerusalem whose most sensitive sites are controlled by groups of settlers, and the Jerusalem that continues to serve the Israeli government as a bargaining chip to prevent the renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians.
There are two kinds of settlements in Jerusalem: Jewish neighborhoods built by the government on land annexed to Jerusalem in 1967, in which 190,000 Israelis presently live; and small settlement compounds in the middle of the Palestinian neighborhoods surrounding the Old City, housing 2000 settlers, guarded by a similar number of armed guards.
Since Jerusalem is a national and religious symbol for both Palestinians and Israelis, a mutually-agreed upon solution will have to include a compromise in which the Palestinian neighborhoods serve as the Palestinian capital and the Israeli neighborhoods as the Israeli capital. The large settlements were built in order to prevent such a solution and to isolate East Jerusalem from the West Bank. The small neighborhoods are meant to create a mixture of the two populations, to create Israeli presence in the Palestinian areas, which thereby prevents achieving a successful two-state solution.
This first wave of the present storm in Jerusalem was actually opened by a settlement of the first kind, when just the week before announcing the building freeze in the settlements, Netanyahu announced the intention to approve 900 new housing units in Giloh. Two weeks ago, while rumors spoke of an emerging formula with Egyptian help to return to the negotiating table, the Israeli housing minister announced the intention to issue tenders to build 692 new housing units in East Jerusalem, in Ramot, Pisgat Ze'ev and Neve Ya'acov. Finally, on the 3rd of January a new plan of 393 housing units in Neve Ya'acov was validated, paving the way for the announced tenders.
Announcements about settlements of the second kind came one after another in the last week, with some of the reports mixing intentions, plans and real actions. We will try to sort this out. Last week the Jerusalem municipality approved building permits for 24 housing units for settlers in the Beit Orot compound in the Palestinian neighborhood of A-Tur. Meretz city council members appealed the decision and the city council is supposed to discuss the final approval in the coming weeks.
In Shuafat, the regional council approved a plan to build 50 housing units for settlers. The approval was given in March 2009 but only published in the media in the last days. These plans have not been validated yet and prolonged procedures will be required until construction can begin.
In Sheikh Jarrah , on December 29, 2009, the plan to build housing units at the Shepherd Hotel entered its last stage of paying taxes to the city, and we may see the beginning of construction in the coming weeks.
In Ras Al-Amud , there has been renovation work in the last weeks in buildings that served the police until two years ago and were transferred to the settlers, apparently preparing them for housing. It was also announced that the Jerusalem municipality approved in its 2010 budget NIS 250,000 for a mikveh in Ras Al-Amud.
In Atarot , the city is trying to advance a plan to expand the industrial area by using parts of the defunct airport, but this idea is in the very initial planning stages.
On Mount of Olives, a report said that the Seven Arches Hotel was sold to settlers but it turned out not to be true. However, in the last years settlers began bringing groups of soldiers to the hotel for weekend as part of seminars about Jerusalem. They may have decided to expand the project.
The significance of all of these developments is expanding Israeli control and dominance into Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem. The continuation of this trend might not only start a fire in Jerusalem, but threatens to undermine any possibility of compromise in Jerusalem.
It was hardly publicized that Lieberman and McCain visited the Western Wall tunnels and the City of David site in Silwan on this visit. They were hosted by the settler organizations that manage those sites and were impressed by the underground excavations and the impressive archaeological finds. But the more these organizations reveal and uncover the history and the past, the more they cover up the present and cast a dark shadow on the future. McCain and Lieberman may have seen parts of Jerusalem of the past, but they did not see the real Jerusalem of today. If they really cared about Israel's future they would be working to stop this settlement activity and to start negotiations that can finally bring peace to this sacred city.