Americans for Peace Now sent a letter to President Obama today, urgently pointing out what should be obvious to him: “Engage NOW to get Jerusalem under control.” The full text of the letter can be found here.
The letter lays out the problem clearly enough. And, indeed, the solution is for President Obama to get Prime Minister
Netanyahu to rein in the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat. I’ll take it further—Barkat is as big a threat to Israel’s future as any individual in the world.
Barkat, a businessman, became mayor in 2008, and many thought that as a secular Israeli, coming on the heels of a very religious mayor, he would be more pragmatic. Such has not been the case.
Barkat has gone out of his way to enflame the conflict with the Palestinians. Jerusalem is the most emotional of all the issues setting Israelis and Palestinians at odds, and the mayor of Jerusalem, therefore, has more direct power than anyone to cause flare-ups.
Barkat does not pay much mind to this fact. In his campaign for mayor he made it very clear that he felt strongly that Jerusalem remain the “undivided, eternal capital of the Jewish people.” And, much more than his Haredi predecessor, he has taken bold steps to ensure that outcome.
Barkat does not, of course, act alone. When something like the Ramat Shlomo controversy occurs (this was the settlement whose expansion was announced during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority), it’s not Barkat’s direct doing. But he could have stopped it, as could Netanyahu. Such has often been the case in the past.
But such events don’t simply come up through willful neglect, they are inspired by Barkat’s leadership and are therefore more plentiful these days. Today, for example, Ha’aretz reported that Barkat went to extraordinary lengths to gain approval for a plan to raze 22 homes in Silwan, just outside the Old City, for the expansion of the King David Garden project.
City planners severely criticized the plan, and Barkat had to exercise extreme pressure to push it through despite their objections. He fired the deputy mayor who opposed the plan. He is also removing members of the left-wing Meretz party from the city’s governing coalition, having tired of their repeated insistence on trivialities like human rights and the rule of law.
When the city’s legal adviser said the plan didn’t meet the standards of legality, Barkat simply hired a private lawyer to certify that it did.
Barkat has commenced expanding the Shepherd’s Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah, already a flashpoint in the city. He has worked hand in glove with settler groups to expand Jewish presence in Arab areas to ensure that plans to divide the city, which have usually centered around the notion that what is Jewish will be Israeli and what is Arab will be Palestinian, will be permanently mooted.
It is widely accepted that there is a consensus in Israel on the question of sharing Jerusalem. Of course, there is no such thing. One would be hard-pressed to find very many non-Jewish citizens of Israel (some 20% of the population, not counting the Arab residents of East Jerusalem who do not hold citizenship) who do not believe Jeruisalem should be shared. Put together with the distinct minority of Israeli Jews who do not join in that “consensus” and you certainly have a significant piece of the populace.
But Arab opinion inside Israel counts for very little. So one understands what Livni is saying—politically speaking, there is a virtual consensus on the issue.
So, fine, let Israel come to the negotiating table with an undivided Jerusalem wholly under Israeli control as their position. But no one who wants to see peace in this troubled land should tolerate steps that are meant to pre-empt such negotiations and create irreversible facts in the ground.
That’s what Barkat is trying to do. No, he’s not alone, but he is the mayor of Jerusalem. He’s in a position to advance the cause of unilaterally determining the fate of Jerusalem by a very great deal.
Peace Now has it just right: if Obama does not act to stop Barkat by pushing Netanyahu to intercede, the mayor of Jerusalem may very well destroy what little hope for a resolution of this conflict remains. Jerusalem’s a tough issue, one which Obama understandably wants to put off. But he can’t.
We either deal right now with Jerusalem or we forget about peace, or even significant improvement, for the foreseeable future. And that means a future in which Israel is not likely to survive.