Jonathan Cook: the View from Nazareth -

Israel tightens its grip on Jerusalem – 26 November 2010

While Washington struggles to kick-start the troubled Middle East peace talks, Israel has been working quietly over the past few weeks to sabotage the US efforts with a series of measures targeting the most incendiary issue of all – Jerusalem.

The latest move was the passage of a law requiring a national referendum before occupied East Jerusalem can be handed over to the Palestinians, who demand it as the capital of their future state.

Although Israel and the Palestinians hold widely divergent positions on all the main final-status issues – borders, Jerusalem and refugees – East Jerusalem is emerging as the potentially biggest stumbling block to an agreement.

That is apparent already as the US administration tries to revive the stalled negotiations by enticing Israel with an “incentive package” in return for a 90-day freeze on settlement building.

Before presenting his cabinet with the US offer, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked for written assurances that the freeze – a precondition for bringing the Palestinians back to the table – will not include East Jerusalem.

Construction there caused major friction between Israel and Washington during the previous, 10-month moratorium.

A promised letter outlining the White House’s terms has been much delayed as officials cobble together a form of words that skirt the issue to the satisfaction of both Israel and the Palestinians. Despite the diplomatic wrangling, however, the chances of reaching an agreement on East Jerusalem are dimmer than ever.

In violation of international law, Israel has already entrenched 200,000 Jews in more than a dozen large settlements in the eastern part of the city.

Recent measures by Netanyahu and his supporters appear to be hammering the final nails in the peace process’ coffin.

The most obvious is the referendum law, which makes it nigh impossible for Israel to cede either of the two territories it has annexed following the 1967 war: East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

Any potential agreement with the Palestinians will now have to win backing not just from Netanyahu’s rightwing ministers but also from the public in a referendum – assuming, as seems certain, the deal cannot first muster a two-thirds majority of the parliament.

The Israeli prime minister, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the legislation, knows that in practice no agreement on handing over East Jerusalem could cross this threshold. A consensus in favour of Jerusalem as the “undivided capital of Israel” embraces all political factions.

This point has not been lost on the Palestinian leadership. “The Israelis want to tell the whole world that they will not withdraw from Jerusalem or the Golan,” Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president said this week as he was forced to open the new headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Ramallah.

Israel has made East Jerusalem off-limits to all Palestinian political activity, a fact Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, discovered last month. He had to cancel his attendance at a Jerusalem school whose long-overdue refurbishment had been paid for by the Palestinian Authority after Yitzhak Aharonovitch, the Israeli police minister, issued an injunction against the visit.

On Wednesday Abbas’ criticisms were echoed by the Arab League. Its deputy secretary general, Ahmed bin Helli, said Israel “continues to place obstacle after obstacle to harm efforts to renew the peace process”.

The obstacles to an agreement with the Palestinians are fast proliferating in East Jerusalem – with no noticeable opposition.

Last month the centrist Kadima party joined Netanyahu’s government in advancing legislation to define all of Jerusalem as a “national priority area”, entitling Jews – including settlers – to financial breaks and cheap housing if they move to the city.

The legislation is expected to lead to a housing boom, especially in the city’s eastern half, where more land is available for development. Israel has already announced plans for more than 1,500 homes in East Jerusalem’s settlements since the previous building freeze ended two months ago.

In addition, Jerusalem’s hardline mayor, Nir Barkat, has been turning to rightwing legislators in the parliament to help him protect extreme settler groups as they take over homes in the middle of Palestinian neighbourhoods.

Akiva Eldar, a veteran commentator for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, called Jerusalem’s new status a “deliberate provocation”. He also noted that neither Kadima or the Labor party “would dare to oppose any decision to Judaize – excuse me, strengthen – ‘unified Jerusalem, eternal capital of Israel’.”

The other ultra-sensitive issue in East Jerusalem is the Old City and its holy places. And Israel is moving swiftly to tighten its hold on these areas too. In doing so, it is again forestalling a peace deal with the Palestinians.

This week Netanyahu’s government approved a £23 million budget to give the Western Wall and its plaza a “facelift” and make it, in the words of the prime minister, “the focal point and a source of inspiration for millions of visitors and tourists”.

The ostensible goal is to increase tourism, meaning chiefly Jewish tourism. Previous initiatives have seen the number of annual visitors jump from two million a decade ago to eight million. The plan is to double that number.

But more significantly, Israel intends to strengthen its control of the site and buttress its claims to sovereignty over the area around the Western Wall, including the compound of mosques in which al-Aqsa is located.

A related scheme being advanced by the city’s rightwing municipality will tear down sections of the Old City’s ancient walls next to the mosques and build an underground car park and connecting tunnel close by.

Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian spokesman, noted this week that Israel’s “illegal activities” in the occupied Old City were “preventing us from reaching an agreement”.

That may be a major understatement. Israeli ambitions in the Old City triggered the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. In the current circumstances, Israel and the Palestinians are hurtling not towards peace talks but another round of violent confrontation.

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