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Jerusalem on the Brink - the danger of the peace talks

18 August 201

N o r e f A r t i c l e

Jerusalem on the brink

Daniel Seidemann

 The Israeli-Palestinian situation today is eerily reminiscent of the situation in 2000 when plummeting expectations, coupled with events in Jerusalem, triggered an eruption that devastated the political process. The international community, and in particular Washington, has placed all its hopes in relaunching direct Israeli-Palestinian talks in order to avert disaster. However, Jerusalem today is at its most volatile, susceptible to the acts of various spoilers. An isolated Jerusalem provocation could create the tipping point that destroys the process. Jerusalem consequently requires resolute engagement, not finesse, and the establishment of clear rules of engagement is critical to sustaining the credibility of a vulnerable political process: no surprises in Jerusalem and zero tolerance for moves on the ground that impact on the outcome of final status talks or threaten to destabilise the city.

The current political climate of the Middle East is eerily reminiscent of that of autumn 2000. Then, as now, largely routine crisis management met up with some non-routine crises. Stagnant political processes failed to generate any real movement on the issues, and previously high expectations were dashed. Then, as now, the United States displayed “understanding” for the constraints of domestic Israeli politics, but far less for the political constraints under which the Palestinian leadership struggled. That leadership was being pressured into going places it didn’t want to go – then a summit at Camp David, now direct talks. Venting frustrations by blaming the Palestinians, then, as now, was the path of least resistance. Even many of the key players are the same: from Ehud Barak and Dennis Ross to Mahmoud Abbas and Saeb Erekat.

 September 26 approaches

The potential for peril in the latter half of 2010 has not escaped notice. The international community, most prominently the Obama administration, has fixated on 26 September as “d-day,” and have placed their hopes on one bold, “redeeming” political move to avoid disaster – the resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The focus on September 26 makes sense. A number of events will conspire to make this a dangerously volatile juncture. On that day the settlement moratorium will end, and prospects of its extension are unclear. Around that time the Arab League’s four-month “umbrella” for Palestinian participation in proximity talks will expire, and their support of direct negotiations, while quite possible, is hardly guaranteed. Shortly before that date, Ramadan – during which provocative acts, like home demolitions, are traditionally suspended – will end, followed by the annual drama of world leaders convening at the UN General Assembly.

The renewal of direct talks, it is hoped, will generate the necessary political energies and maneuverability to survive this perilous period without a catastrophic collapse of the political process. Whatever the relative merits of this approach, it is already clear that events on the ground – from Eilat and Aqaba to the Lebanese border – threaten to outpace and outmanoeuvre the calculations of the stewards of the political processes.

Jerusalem is a potential tinderbox

And like the summer of 2000, the prospect of a Jerusalem event causing an eruption that devastates the political process is very real indeed. The summer of 2010 in Jerusalem has already proven to be the tensest in recent memory. In Silwan, continued settler activities have sparked internecine skirmishing reminiscent of the toxic realities of Hebron. In Arab areas like the Muslim Quarter, Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, the prospect of the displacement of Palestinian families touches on one of the rawest nerves of the conflict. Just beneath the surface – literally and figuratively – continued tunnelling and excavations under the Muslim Quarter and Silwan inflame the visceral fears of Palestinian residents, who perceive it as a threat to the stability of their homes and the integrity of their holy sites.

There are growing indications of collusion between the settlers and the police, who have, for example, secured the displacement of Palestinian families in the Muslim Quarter while refusing, to execute an Israeli court verdict compelling the evacuation of settlers from the Beit Yehonatan house in Silwan, a short distance away, on the grounds of “tense conditions.” Mayor Barkat’s pressure to resume demolitions appears to be bearing fruit, with six buildings recently demolished, the first such demolitions in many months.

Shades of summer 2000

This is the Jerusalem backdrop as we approach September 26, and tensions are likely to rise exponentially as the date nears. No one individual, nor group of individuals, can cause Jerusalem to erupt at whim; combustion is invariably spontaneous. But the circumstances under which Jerusalem erupts are hardly random, and more often than not can be identified in advance: when dramatic manoeuvring takes place in the international arena, accompanied by plummeting hopes, and when these intermingle with heightened tensions on the ground – particularly in and around the Old City – Jerusalem is at its most volatile, susceptible to the acts of the sundry spoilers and pyromaniacs. Those were the circumstances that existed in summer 2000, and these same circumstances exist today.

Since assuming office in March 2009, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has proven that when determined to do so, he can get events in Jerusalem under control: for example, there have been no new town plans or new tenders since the March 2010 Biden visit. But Netanyahu has also proven ready to engage in provocative actions in Jerusalem – such as reviving old tenders and approving construction at Shepherds Hotel – when he deems it necessary to consolidate his domestic base.

This discloses Netanyahu’s troubling preference for tensions with the president of the United States over those with his own minister of the interior. This tendency will likely worsen: Netanyahu recently returned from Washington under the clear impression that the Obama administration will avoid confrontation with him, at least until after the November congressional elections. As a result, Netanyahu probably feels he can get away with doing some “problematic” things in Jerusalem – like depositing the Jerusalem Master Plan for public review – as long as he doesn’t go “too far”.

Indifference to the implications

Enter Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat who has openly rejected the views of Washington, not only regarding Jerusalem as a final status issue, but with respect to the rules of good and bad behaviour in the town. At best indifferent to the international implications of his decisions and hostile to the political process, Barkat will likely be tempted during this upcoming period to “make a point” in Jerusalem – by resuming demolitions immediately after Ramadan, by expediting the Silwan master plan, and so on. And Netanyahu has displayed little willingness to exercise his leverage over Barkat, apparently fearful of being “outed” as “too soft” on Jerusalem.

Finally, there are the rogue actors: the East Jerusalem settlers, known for hoarding their “ammunition” until it can be used for maximal effect. The prospect of derailing incipient final status talks will likely motivate them to launch some high-profile provocations that are ready and waiting, like the demolition of the Shepherds Hotel while constructing a new settlement in Sheikh Jarrah, and carrying out new high-profile evictions,

Engagement v turning a blind eye

The cast is on stage and the lines have been learned. As September 26 approaches, driven by a fear that resumption of direct talks will entail a continued moratorium, applicable at least in part to Jerusalem, the mayor and the settlers will likely say to themselves: “Show time”! And Netanyahu is likely to say, as he has often done in the past in Jerusalem, “Don’t expect me to expend my dwindling political assets to stop them.” Under these circumstances, it is only a matter of time before the sparks meets the volatile gases.

Overburdened by the complexities of the situation and daunted by the considerable political capital already being exhausted in navigating these dangerous waters, the international community will be tempted to say: “These are just routine Jerusalem developments. The Israelis let off some steam, the Palestinians protest. What’s a few tenders here, a few demolitions there?” Nothing could be more wrong, or more dangerous.

However inconvenient, Jerusalem in this hot summer of 2010 requires resolute engagement, not finesse. Things are so tense today that even a “routine” Jerusalem provocation could have devastating effects.

Dangerous faultlines

This is not a doomsday vision. Israel’s security apparatus will likely contain the local manifestations of any Jerusalem eruption quickly. But the tremors of any convulsive Jerusalem event will fall on existing faultlines throughout the region, exacerbating existing and well-founded fears: that under current circumstances, by giving cover to the political process, Arab states are complicit in the loss of Al Quds to the Arab world; that settlement in and around the Old City is marginalizing Muslim and Christian equities in the city; and that the Palestinian sector of the city is a community at risk. With Jerusalem playing a significant role in informing and defining the relationship between the Arab/Islamic world and the West, a short but potent Jerusalem event could suffice in causing the catastrophic collapse of an already vulnerable political process.

The rules of engagement are clear, and they are political imperatives necessary to survive the coming weeks and emerge with a political process intact: no surprises in Jerusalem, and zero tolerance for moves that impact on the outcome of final status talks or threaten to destabilise the city. The notion that this can be done “on the cheap” borders on the delusionary, and succumbing to avoidance and denial could come at a very high price.


Daniel Seidemann is the founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, an Israeli NGO that deals with crisis management and conflict resolution in the city. He is a key organiser of Ir Amim, a project for a Jerusalem for all peoples.  He is also a practicing attorney and specializes in legal and public issues in East Jerusalem. Since 1994 he has participated in many of the Track II talks on Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians. In 2000 and 2001, he served on a committee of experts commissioned by the prime minister, Ehud Barak, which studied the implementation of political agreements with the Palestinians. Daniel Seidemann is a graduate of Cornell University and he immigrated to Israel in 1973. A retired reserve major in the Israeli Defense Forces, he received a degree in Law from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 2010, in recognition of his work in Jerusalem, he was awarded an honorary MBE.