The Middle East Channel

The myth of a moderate Tunisia

When Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane arrives in Washington on April 26, he will most certainly present himself as the representative of a "moderate" Arab state that is friendly to the West. As a representative of Human Rights Watch, however, I recently witnessed another side of this supposedly "modern" regime.

My organization released a report last month detailing the Tunisian government's treatment of political prisoners, and a group of us planned to hold a press conference in Tunis to announce it, in the hopes of sparking a dialogue that would lead to change. This was an approach we had tried in 2004, when we released a report on the situation of political prisoners, and in 2005, when we published a study on Internet freedoms in the region. Both releases occurred without incident. This time, however, we found our path blocked at every turn: All of the hotels we contacted stated that they lacked the space to accommodate us, and the room we eventually rented was mysteriously flooded while we were at dinner. The government banned journalists from our news conference and physically barred those who tried to attend. State security agents followed us wherever we went.

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The Middle East Channel

Redeeming Jerusalem by truth, not hollow slogans

In recent full page ads in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, renowned author and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel argued that Jerusalem is "above politics." But the portrait of the city Wiesel painted is so factually inaccurate and so morally specious as to leave no room for doubt: Wiesel's false innocence and moral posturing over Jerusalem is an example of politics par excellence, with Wiesel willingly becoming a tool of Israel's extreme right in its desperate efforts to block Obama's peace efforts.

A review of the facts is in order.

93 percent of Israel - including most of West Jerusalem and the 35 percent of privately-owned land in East Jerusalem expropriated by Israel since 1967 - is categorized by Israel as "State Land." Only Israeli citizens and those entitled to immigrate under the Law of Return may acquire properties on this land. Palestinians of East Jerusalem, with rare exception, are in neither of these categories. So while Wiesel may purchase a home in anywhere in East or West Jerusalem, a Palestinian cannot.



Since 1967, Israel has built more than 50,000 dwellings for Israelis in East Jerusalem, but has built fewer than 600 for Palestinians (the last was built 35 years ago). And from 1967 until today, as East Jerusalem's Palestinian population increased from 70,000 to 280,000, Israel has issued only 4,000 permits for private Palestinian construction in East Jerusalem. Barred from building legally, the Palestinians built without permits - leaving them subject to Israeli demolition of their "illegal" homes.

Today extreme settler groups have launched a campaign to evict Palestinian families - refugees of Israel's War of Independence - from densely-populated Palestinian neighborhoods in the heart of East Jerusalem. They are doing so based on the "right" of Jews to recover properties lost in the 1948 war. But under Israeli law Palestinians have no such right. So while Israel insists that Palestinians renounce any "right of return" - something understood as necessary for the two-state solution - it is implementing a Jewish right of return to Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and turning 1948 refugees into 2010 refugees.

And then there is the question of Israel's respect for other religions.

In recent years the Israeli Government has transferred virtually all of the most sensitive religious, archeological and cultural sites in East Jerusalem to the de facto control of extreme settler groups. These groups are abusing archeology and public planning to highlight the Jewish past, while marginalizing the Christian, Muslim and Palestinian dimensions of the city, past and present.

Due to Israeli restrictions, today it is easier for a Palestinian Christian living just south of Jerusalem in Bethlehem to worship in Washington's National Cathedral than to pray in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Today a Muslim living in Turkey has a better chance of getting to Jerusalem to pray at the Old City's al-Aqsa mosque than a Muslim living a few miles away in Ramallah.

Before our eyes, Jerusalem is becoming the arena where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is morphing from a resolvable national conflict into a religious war - a transformation that, if it continues, poses an existential threat to Israel. And what starts in Jerusalem does not stay in Jerusalem: conflict in Jerusalem resonates throughout the region and beyond, wind in the sails of every jihadist. 

By asserting the Jewish people's exclusive "ownership" of Jerusalem, Wiesel embraces the policies that are accelerating this metamorphosis.

Wiesel ignores these facts. He ignores the fact that the policies he is defending will soon turn Jerusalem into a city so balkanized, geographically and demographically, that the two-state solution will no longer be possible. And the demise of the two-state solution portends the end of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, to be replaced by either an apartheid-like reality with a Jewish minority ruling over an Arab majority, or by a bi-national Arab-Jewish state.

Israel is at an existential crossroads with Jerusalem. Current policies cannot be justified - even by Elie Wiesel, even to Israel's staunchest allies. These policies consistently derail the resumption of negotiations towards a conflict-ending agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The cumulative impact of these policies will be the destruction of the two-state solution, the radicalization of the conflict and the de-legitimization of Israel. With these policies, Jerusalem is becoming the place where Israel slides down the slippery slope into pariah status.

By agreeing to carry the water for Israel's extreme right, Wiesel has not only undermined his own moral authority, but has done so in the service of a political agenda that is a grave threat to Israel's most vital interests. If Wiesel loves Jerusalem as much as he claims, he should indeed put Jerusalem above politics and join President Obama in his insistence that these dangerous policies cease, and support Obama's efforts to achieve a final status agreement that resolves all the issues, not the least of which being Jerusalem.

Daniel Seidemann is a Jerusalem-based lawyer and expert on Jerusalem, and the founder of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem.

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