The Middle East Channel

Jerusalem in the Here and Now

The brouhaha over Israel's recent settlement announcements faded as suddenly as it emerged. After the United Nations General Assembly vote on November 29, 2012 that granted Palestine non-member observer status, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized an aggressive push in and around East Jerusalem. Construction plans, some of which already were on the fast track, were further accelerated and thousands of new housing units were approved, both to deter the Palestinian leadership from taking further steps in the international arena and as an unsuccessful election gambit to shore up his right flank. Within weeks, the bureaucracy reverted to a plodding pace, partly because the brouhaha had served its purpose, partly because of the quick and relatively forceful international response.

International condemnations of Israeli settlement activity are often pro forma. Not this time. The United States and European Union have been sensitive to these particular plans for nearly a decade already because they are seen to pose potentially insurmountable obstacles to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The most provocative project in question -- a development in the area known as E-1, an approximately 4.5 square mile zone east of Jerusalem that stretches to the settlement of Maale Adumim -- would all but separate the putative Palestinian capital from its Arab hinterland and foreclose the possibility of suturing the West Bank's urban continuum.

A similar though somewhat less threatening plan targets south Jerusalem. Its centerpiece is Givat HaMatos, the first new settlement in Jerusalem since Har Homa was founded on the lands of Jabal Abu Ghneim in 1997. It will form the final link in a chain that extends a Jewish residential presence across the city's width, isolating the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa, which also would be bisected by a new road to accommodate settler traffic. Like E-1, it would rupture or at least force a deviation in the West Bank's urban fabric.

These settlements, many experts and diplomats argue, could put an end to partitioning the city, as suggested by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2000, such that the vast majority of Jerusalem's Jews wind up in Israel and its Arabs in Palestine. This led European states to quickly and forcefully condemn the Israeli announcements, as did the United States in weaker language, decrying them as fatal blows to the viability of a Palestinian capital and therefore to a Palestinian state.

Moving ahead with these plans certainly would make a bad situation worse, but alarmist forecasts of the imminent demise of Palestinian viability can distract attention from the immense problems already at hand. True, settlement expansion would render dividing the city more difficult by raising the political cost to any future Israeli prime minister who might contemplate it. As it stands today, however, the amount of political capital such a decision would require already is enormous; the willingness to expend it is non-existent; and given political trends, the chances that it materializes are miniscule. In this sense, for the international community to focus on possible territorial futures diverts attention from current political realities. The same logic applies to the Arab neighborhoods, which today are sad, angry, and failing in nearly every sense. When they were occupied by Israel in 1967, they constituted a coherent urban entity; four and a half decades later, they are no longer "viable" in the sense of being able to grow or develop autonomously.

No less important, it is hard to imagine that, given the plasticity of the notion of viability, any particular development could spell its definitive end. Viability exists in the realm of the technical, not the political, and therefore is amenable to practical solutions. If E-1 threatens to cut Arab Jerusalem off from the West Bank, or to force travelers on an unrealistic detour, one could always depress a road, build a bridge, or otherwise secure passage for Arabs traversing what Israel considers its sovereign territory; the same logic applies elsewhere in the West Bank as well. The notion of viability turns what Palestinians see as a matter of liberation into a matter of development, subordinating self-determination and sovereignty to expert intervention. In this sense, adopting viability -- which does not have a natural Arabic equivalent and is translated through a clumsy neologism -- as the standard of what is necessary could constrain political rights: Palestine theoretically could be viable yet lack fundamental attributes of statehood.

Even if the international community were to mobilize in the name of viability to protect Arab Jerusalem, one should be realistic about what that pressure would achieve. Over time, in the absence of an overall diplomatic settlement, Israeli actors, governmental and non-governmental, likely will find ways to chip away at constraints, circumvent pressure, and incrementally change reality on the ground. U.S. and European incentives -- and determination -- to maintain pressure might well gradually abate. Washington especially will be reluctant to spend limited political capital on something that -- by blocking rather than producing an outcome -- has no visible, immediate reward, involves constant monitoring and hectoring, and inevitably would provoke tensions (in some cases entailing a domestic political cost) with an ally. 

The bleakness of the diplomatic horizon should lead the international community to expand its political repertoire. As opposed to focusing virtually all attention on preventing adverse developments, it also should push for positive changes today. A key place to start would be housing, the lack of which, for both Arabs and Jews (though for very different reasons), is among the biggest urban challenges.

Of the myriad forms of disadvantage and discrimination that Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem face, housing is at or near the top. Since 1967 no new Palestinian neighborhoods have been established; the urban master plan restricts Palestinian building to 13 percent of the city, much of which is already covered with chaotic, unregulated sprawl. This is despite the quadrupling of the Palestinian population, which today constitutes 36 percent of Jerusalem's population. Low availability, high rents, and poor services have pushed some Arab residents into nearby Jewish settlements and particularly Pisgat Zeev, presenting the Palestinian Liberation of Organization (PLO) with a quandary: authorizing Palestinians to live there would seem to confer legitimacy on them, but an advisor to the group acknowledged to me that with housing so precarious and the PLO unable to offer any solution whatsoever, the organization cannot afford to condemn it. It remains silent on this like on other issues, abdicating responsibility for the city.

Unable to build legally, many Palestinians have done so without proper permits, leaving, according to the United Nations, more than 30 percent of the city's Arab population vulnerable to displacement. The slowing of home demolitions as a result of U.S. pressure is a welcome development; so too is Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's plan to regularize much of the illegal construction in East Jerusalem. But with the need for housing so massive and the urban regulations so restrictive, suspending punitive measures is far from sufficient. European actors, in particular, should put their weight behind those working on this issue.

This weight must be as political as technical. The EU is hesitant to fund projects in East Jerusalem in deference to Israeli sensitivities (as it tends to be in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank in which Israel has a veto over all building). This of course is sensible, but sensibility should not come at the expense of political priorities. Sundering aid from politics has reduced the effectiveness of both; how to harmonize them is not always evident, but it is plain that East Jerusalem cannot be a Palestinian capital -- or even basically functional -- without housing for its Arab population. Activism in this realm could enable Europe to play the political role that it claims to want but has had trouble realizing.

West Jerusalem faces a housing shortage as well. Expansion to the west has been blocked by the Jerusalem Forest, which Israel's environmental movement staunchly defends. Urban density and the construction of high-rise dwellings have been constrained by the imperative of preserving the city's touristic appeal and the preference of many ultra-orthodox Jews not to use an elevator on the Sabbath. Expansion to the east, therefore, has been the consensus option for ideologues and pragmatists alike. But Israel has other options for increasing the housing stock on the west side of the city, including urban regeneration and densification, as well as expansion into the forest, environmental concerns notwithstanding. Considering the complexity of these strategies, which the city has only begun to implement, Israel could benefit from aid of a different kind: planning expertise.

Of course many in Israel are no less determined to maintain their sovereignty in East Jerusalem than Palestinians are to establish theirs. For them, technical solutions to West Jerusalem's housing shortage would be as unsatisfactory as artificially engineering a viable state would be for Palestinians. If the occupation could be ended and the conflict resolved through such relatively simple measures, it surely would have been by now. But that doesn't mean such practical steps are unimportant. With the current situation set to endure, the powerhouses of the international community would do well to start thinking about viability in the here-and-now, rather than chasing the ever-receding diplomatic horizon as the city erodes under its residents' feet.

Robert Blecher is director of the Israel-Palestine Project at International Crisis Group.

AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Syrian opposition fighters capture airbase and push for Deir al-Zour

According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, opposition fighters overtook the Al-Jarrah military airbase near the northern city of Aleppo after days of fighting. While this is not the first airbase captured by opposition forces, it is reportedly the first time they have seized useable MiG fighter jets. Other bases had only contained damaged aircraft. Meanwhile, opposition fighters, including Al-Qadisiyah Brigade and Jabhat al-Nusra, have launched an offensive on the city of Deir al-Zour. According to the leader of Al-Qadisiyah, Ibrahim Abu Baker, opposition fighters have already taken control of the countryside, and are now surrounding the city. If they succeed in overtaking Deir al-Zour, it will be the first time opposition forces will be in control of an entire province. On Monday, a minibus exploded at the Cilvegozu border crossing between Syria and Turkey killing at least 12 people and injuring dozens of others. According to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, "A vehicle loaded with bombs was able to reach our customs gate because the customs gate on the Syrian side is not working and is not being controlled." No one has taken responsibility for the attack, but some activists say it might have targeted George Sabra, vice president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, who crossed the border just minutes prior.

Headlines

  • Iran has reported it is converting some of its enriched uranium into reactor fuel, which could reduce stockpiles for potential weaponization, ahead of meetings on the country's contentious nuclear development program.
  • Clashes erupted between police and anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Egypt during a rally marking the second anniversary of the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak.
  • Yemenis gathered to celebrate the second anniversary of protests that led to the ouster of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, with two people killed in the southern city of Aden.
  • Tunisia's secular Ettakatol party has backed Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali's proposal to set up a cabinet of technocrats, following the killing of opposition leader Chokri Belaid. 

Arguments and Analysis

Iran's Global Business Is Murder Inc. (Michael Oren, Wall Street Journal)

"A bomb explodes in Burgas, Bulgaria, leaving five Israeli tourists and a local driver dead. Mysteriously marked ammunition kills countless Africans in civil wars. Conspirators plot to blow up a crowded cafe and an embassy in Washington, D.C. A popular prime minister is assassinated, and a despised dictator stays in power by massacring his people by the tens of thousands.

Apart from their ruthlessness, these events might appear unrelated. And yet the dots are inextricably linked. The connection is Iran.

In 25 cities across five continents, community centers, consulates, army barracks and houses of worship have been targeted for destruction. Thousands have been killed. The perpetrators are agents of Hezbollah and the Quds Force, sometimes operating separately and occasionally in unison. All take their orders from Tehran."

Obsessive Are the Peacemakers (Steven Cook, Council on Foreign Relations)

"Lost in all the reporting and blogging about President Obama's planned March visit to Israel were the first phone calls his new Secretary of State, John Kerry, made even before entering office.  Even before figuring out how to use his new email, learning the way to the cafeteria, and filling out "Emergency Contact" forms, Secretary Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres and president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.  Perhaps America's new chief diplomat was merely extending a courtesy to important Middle East allies or maybe he was giving them a heads-up that the White House was going to announce the president's visit to Israel and the West Bank or perchance Secretary Kerry wants to have a go at making peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Of these three possibilities, the second seems most likely, but word on the street is that the United States or at least the State Department is about to get back into the peace process game.  As one diplomat related, "Well, it is better than doing nothing.  Maybe Kerry will get lucky. You never know."  Yes, indeed, you never know, but there are a few things the secretary of state should keep in mind as he declares that peace is possible within two years, begins his shuttle diplomacy, offers bridging proposals, admonishes the parties against unilateral actions, calls for a summit, builds confidence, secludes himself and negotiators at Wye River/Shepherdstown/Camp David, writes a road map, and declares his optimism that the parties are ready for a breakthrough:"

America in Strategic Retreat from the Middle East (Riad Kahwaji & Theodore Karasik, INEGMA)

"Clearly, America is in strategic retreat in the region, and the lack of will for Washington to involve itself in future Greater Middle East contingencies is growing stronger. Sequestration, if fully implemented, will kill America's key tools for power projection-Air power, navy and special operations-if they are required. And the impact of sequestration will be global, not regional. Providing intelligence to allies and using drones from behind will only weaken America's voice when Washington needs to be heard during a crisis or a conflict. In the Greater Middle East, Washington will only be interested in keeping mil-mil relations healthy despite reductions, tolerate disruption in pol-pol discussions, and concentrate on developing a ballistic missile shield against Iranian or other missiles. Clearly, technology and robots-from afar-- is now America's weapons of choice.

Consequently, we need to ask ourselves: What will happen to the U.S. military presence in the Middle East if the sequestration is implemented? How much will the effect be on the Arab-Iranian balance of power? What will happen to NATO? How will NATO be perceived in the region taking into consideration that most Arab officials believe the U.S. is NATO? So there are many questions regarding sequestration's impact on U.S. foreign policy and Washington's international priorities that need to be addressed by the current Obama Administration. It is true that aggressive and unilateral actions often lead to troubles and wars, but also indifference and over caution sometimes leads to inviting undesired troubles and wars. A middle ground must be sought."

---Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images