Reductio ad Absurdum
The ongoing spat between the Israeli and American governments over the exact terms of a “settlement freeze” took an interesting turn recently. In a meeting with new Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren on July 18, the US government reportedly demanded Israel prevent the building of 20 apartments in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah as part of its larger demand for a complete no-exceptions freeze on all construction in settlements, including east Jerusalem (which Israel has legally annexed). The case is interesting because if you look at the details, it shows the absurdity of the absolutist position the American government is publicly pushing.
The site in question currently contains an old and empty dilapidated hotel that has never served as housing for Arab east Jerusalemites, and stands on the edge of the existing Jewish neighbourhood of French Hill. It has been owned by American Jewish businessman Irving Moskowitz since 1985, whose purchase of it was completely legal and above board. Furthermore, there are already Israeli government buildings in the neighbourhood, and the actual building in question was used as a base by the Israeli border police until 2002.
Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Municipality, which approved the project, has stressed that Israeli law allows anyone to purchase property anywhere in Jerusalem – meaning Arab Jerusalemites will be as free to purchase these new apartments as Jewish ones.
Yet the US policy is that apartments cannot be built on the site by Moskowitz because that would violate the prohibition on all Israeli construction in “settlements.” Presumably if an Arab entrepreneur wanted to build on the site, or even an Arab-American entrepreneur, that would be fine. And in fact, there has been an explosion of new building in predominantly Arab neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem in recent years. Moreover, Israeli intelligence has reported that both Hamas and Fatah have been buying up properties in east Jerusalem in recent months.
So the US position comes down to this – the Israeli government must actively discriminate against Jews, including non-Israeli Jews, when it comes to making decisions about private building permits in all of east Jerusalem – more than half of Israel’s capital – even when this could have no conceivable effect on future Palestinian claims in the area during peace negotiations.
Instead of backing themselves into an absolutist corner which leads to such absurd demands, Washington should look to make a reasonable freeze agreement with Israel – one that would meet all legitimate Palestinian objections that Israeli construction might change the “facts on the ground” in the West Bank. Such a deal would see Israel promise, as it did in 2005, not to take any additional land for construction in settlements, nor provide any incentives for people to move to settlements. But it would not ask Israel to forcibly ban hundreds of thousands of people from making minor extensions to their homes, or getting badly needed new social services. Nor would it ban foreign Jews from redeveloping derelict buildings in east Jerusalem.
HRW and Saudi Arabia revisited
Following up on my comments last month about Human Rights Watch reportedly using its anti-Israel efforts to fundraise in Saudi Arabia, this has now been confirmed by the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Ken Roth. Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic sent a series of emails to Roth asking for HRW’s side of the story and after receiving a number of replies which essentially danced around the issue, finally asked, “I’m simply asking the question, did your staff person attempt to raise funds in Saudi Arabia by advertising your organisation’s opposition to the pro-Israel lobby?”
Roth replied, “That’s certainly part of the story. We report on Israel. Its supporters fight back with lies and deception. It wasn’t a pitch against the Israel lobby per se. Our standard spiel is to describe our work in the region. Telling the Israel story – part of that pitch – is in part telling about the lies and obfuscation that are inevitably thrown our way.”
Goldberg concludes, “In other words, yes, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division is attempting to raise funds from Saudis, including a member of the Shura Council (which oversees, on behalf of the Saudi monarchy, the imposition in the Kingdom of the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law) in part by highlighting her organisation’s investigations of Israel, and its war with Israel’s ‘supporters,’ who are liars and deceivers. It appears as if Human Rights Watch, in the pursuit of dollars, has compromised its integrity.”
No Coexistence Wanted
The well-known Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has received an ugly lesson in what happens when good intentions meet Middle East realities. Cohen is doing a world tour, and has a concert scheduled for Tel Aviv in September. In the name of promoting peace, he also scheduled a concert in Ramallah to be organised by the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, which represents the families of prisoners in Israeli jails. The audience was to include prisoners’ families, human-rights activists and handicapped people.
However, the Prisoners’ Committee cancelled the concert after the semi-official Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) demanded Cohen be uninvited for not boycotting Israel. PACBI declared, “Ramallah will not receive Cohen as long as he is intent on whitewashing Israel’s colonial apartheid regime by performing in Israel.”