Had it been up to Moses, the law would pierce the mountain, says the Talmud.
Sadly, Moses and his spirit were absent when a hill overlooking Jerusalem’s main expressway, shopping mall, and soccer stadium was not only pierced, but flattened. And this was allegedly done not by the guardians of the law, but by an unholy alliance of politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers and businessmen who allegedly trampled the law while mining a fortune out of the mountain known as – of all names – Holyland.
At the heart of the affair are a real-estate project most Jerusalemites consider an eyesore and a slew of officials who allegedly served developers at the expense of the public interest – pocketing millions while making a laughing-stock of city plans and environmental norms.
The arrests within several days of former Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski and three more senior municipal officials, as well as two millionaires and two senior lawyers, were shocking enough. The eventual announcement by police that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would also be questioned for his alleged complicity in the affair as mayor last decade capped what may emerge as Israel’s worst corruption scandal ever.
Curiously enough, the personal side of the story, though involving a former prime minister, two former mayors, one former deputy mayor and a former city engineer – has stirred less emotion than the allegations at stake. After all, Ehud Olmert had already been forced to leave the premiership in the wake of other corruption allegations; his embroilment in yet another legal entanglement was therefore anything but unimaginable.
What set the Holyland Affair apart was the nature of the reported felonies. This one is not about double billings for flight tickets or non-repayment of personal loans from an admirer, which are among the charges Olmert already faces in court. Rather, this is about bending the law, together with accomplices from the depth of the capital’s municipal system, in order to hand developers a lucrative deal comprising some 800 housing units on land that was not supposed to be residential, and while at it brutalising Jerusalem’s unique skyline.
Moreover, the service to the developers, besides involving many people in many positions, spread over years and involved many disparate favours besides the initial re-zoning of the land, from shortening and narrowing an access road to ignoring the developers’ failure to build kindergartens and to keep the project’s parking underground.
Currently Holyland is a cluster of five 20-storey turrets overshadowed by a skyscraper nearly twice their height that looms ominously from the top of the mountain like a missile ready to be fired into outer space. But it is planned to add four more towers and yet another 32-story spire. This is how a housing project looks when its building rights – the ratio between land area, and the area of the housing permitted to be built – are inflated 1,200% by a city hall that allegedly lost touch with both the city’s needs and the public’s rights. The tallest tower is so intrusive that it now easily dominates the Jerusalem skyline when viewed from the Benjamin Mountains to its north, and the hills of Bethlehem to its south. “They murdered my idea and the buildings I planned,” said architect Ram Karmi, the Israel Prize winner whose original plans for the project were changed beyond recognition despite his protests.
In a televised address, a visibly dispirited Olmert laid blame for the original plan’s alterations on his successor, and declared he never took any bribe from anyone in any context. As for his original approval of a lucrative residential project in an area originally designated for tourism and commerce, Olmert reasoned he thought such a move would attract to the city the kind of affluent secular population its lacklustre economy needs.
Even if this version emerges sincere and accurate, the fact for now remains that police and a district court judge have been convinced by at least one unnamed state witness’ documented account of an elaborate system of bribes which produced a project that thousands of commuters now face daily in disbelief. That is why people have been arrested.
The network that was allegedly at play in this affair allegedly bought former Mayor Lupolianski’s support for NIS 2.1 million (A$604,000), which he reportedly gave to the charity he heads and the seminary his son heads and City Engineer Uri Shetrit’s for NIS 1.3 million (A$374,000), and at least three other senior municipal ‘officials’ for hundreds of thousands of shekels each. A senior police officer was also reportedly bribed at one point, in order to halt an earlier investigation into the project’s evolution. In short, if validated, the Holyland Affair is the deepest and broadest infiltration of corruption into Israeli politics ever.
Even so, there are several rays of light in this scandal.
The first is that the legal system in Israel is once again proving healthy and brave. The pursuit of so many senior people including a former prime minister over a real-estate project’s alleged manipulation sends a message to all would-be political abusers in Israel that the Jewish state’s cops and judges are prepared to go far, and climb high, in their quest to “make the law pierce the mountain”, as the Talmud put it.
Similarly, the affair has spotlighted the emergence of a new civic society whose raison d’être is pretty much the antithesis of the alleged greed that is at the heart of the Holyland Affair.
While most ordinary passers-by began suspecting corruption only when they saw Holyland’s tallest peak gradually rise above it, assorted environmental groups understood from the onset the project’s aesthetic damage and legal manipulations. Led by the Israel Society for the Protection of Nature, they studied the plan and its abuse early on and warned that commercial interests were taking over City Hall. Having failed at Holyland, they soon proceeded to the nearby Valley of the Deer, where several freely roaming deer were to be evicted along with one of the city’s last green lungs, in order to make way for yet more residential development.
Led by British-born linguist Naomi Tzur, a mother of four who had never considered a career in politics, that struggle ended successfully. After having rallied around the cause some 60 grassroots groups, they managed to force the city to turn the developers down, and then also to reject a much more ambitious plan for massive development in the thickly-forested mountains south of the road to Tel Aviv.
Now synonymous with infamy, there was a time when the name “Holyland” connoted a quaint, remote, and humble Jerusalem.
Wedged between Jerusalem’s sprawling working class district Katamonim and the observant Bayit Vegan neighbourhood above it, this part of the city was famous for a modest and off-the-beaten-path hotel whose main claim to fame was a meticulously assembled model of Roman-era Jerusalem, a wedding garden in a tranquil pine forest, and the city’s only mini-golf course. Back then, Holyland epitomised the unique blending of modesty, vision and beauty which were Jerusalem’s hallmark during the long mayoralty of the late Teddy Kollek, who was widely appreciated as one of the world’s most resourceful mayors.
The Holyland developers demolished the quaint hotel, uprooted the pine forest and razed the little golf course. Veteran Jerusalemites were gradually becoming alarmed, noticing that developers were also rapidly wresting houses in other quiet and well-to-do parts of the city in order to replace old and unique buildings with quick-profit projects. Civic struggles began to proliferate, and so did successes like Ms. Tzur’s. For instance, one group of residents forced the cancelation of a plan to turn a road in the residential Baqa area into a public-transport artery, and another persuaded City Hall to build a bicycle park around south Jerusalem’s abandoned rail tracks.
How the Holyland scandal ends legally remains to be seen, but Jerusalemites have long felt that Kollek’s two successors had trampled his legacy, as the city visibly fell into disrepair and its leaders failed to launch the kinds of new theatres, parks, stadiums, libraries, piazzas, museums, colleges and conventions which Kollek produced habitually during his 28-year mayoralty.
Now, beyond the Holyland Affair’s foul air, there is a fresh civic breeze.
The current mayor, Nir Barkat, is not a product of the political system. As a self-made hi-tech millionaire, he is identified with the part of the Israeli business sector that lives for invention rather than profiteering.
By sheer coincidence, the Holyland Project is located a five-minute car ride down the Begin Expressway from the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, which has been the focus of a diplomatic row following US Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Israel.
President Barack Obama’s demand that Israel halt construction in east Jerusalem is broadly opposed by Israelis, who usually ask why the White House challenges Israel and, as they see it, demands nothing from the Palestinians. Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem following the Six Day War in 1967 remains well within the Israeli consensus, as does the development of neighbourhoods like Ramat Shlomo, which are built on previously unpopulated slopes. What is debated in Israel is the wisdom of Jews seeking residence in areas like Sheikh Jarrah, which are predominantly Arab.
Understandably, then, many now recall nostalgically how Kollek juggled between insisting on Jerusalem’s integrity and commanding global respect for his municipal achievements.
Fortunately for him, no one expects Barkat to display Kollek’s kind of international gravitas. While many outside Jerusalem question the wisdom of the Mayor’s unequivocal backing for assorted Jewish construction efforts in predominantly Arab neighbourhoods, all realise that the issue of Jerusalem’s size is not the mayor’s task, but the government’s. They therefore expect him to focus on local government’s bread and butter, namely to plan the city wisely and manage it morally, while others draw its map and shape its demographics.
Barkat knows he rose to power thanks to an organic people-power movement, and does his best to remain attentive to its representatives. In the case of Ms. Tzur this is actually easy, as her environmental struggles landed her, too, in City Hall, where she became, at 60, deputy mayor. Fittingly, she is now in charge of Jerusalem’s Planning and Construction Department.
The extent to which Jerusalem’s new municipal leaders manage to fill Kollek’s big shoes remains to be seen, but even if they don’t, likelihood is low that anything quite like the Holyland Project will recur during their tenure.