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Jerusalem settlement déjà vu (this time it's the Mt. of Olives)

Headlines in Israel and the US continue to report progress toward launching Israeli-Palestinian permanent status talks.  And where there is smoke there must be fire - as the axiom goes - and thus even many cynical observers are today feeling moderately hopeful that new talks may break out.

But developments in Jerusalem challenge that hopefulness.  

Last week, Israel announced new tenders for 700 units in large East Jerusalem settlements.

Quietly on December 29th, with no fanfare or press coverage, steps were taken to expedite final approval of the http://peacenow.org/entries/wp263 (link has expired) Shepherds Hotel settlement plan - paving the way for the imminent demolition of that iconic building and the beginning of construction of the first Jewish settlement to be established in the heart of the densely-populated Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.  (The link is to a screen shot from the Jerusalem Municipality website - Hebrew only).

Most recently, on January 4th (Monday) the Jerusalem Municipality approved the construction of four large buildings to house 24 families - in what will be the first Israeli settlement construction on the Mount of Olives since 1967.  The site is adjacent to the existing Beit Orot settlement (a yeshiva housed in pre-1967 building with some additional trailers).

And for anyone who has any illusions about what the role of Beit Orot at this site is, here is what the Beit Orot website says about the settlement's mission:  "...With only a small number of Jews populating this area, Historic Yerushalayim is in danger of being re-divided, if not through politics then by the facts on the ground. Only a strong permanent Jewish presence in this area will prevent future damage. Yeshivat Beit Orot, located atop the Mount of Olives, is at the forefront of these pioneering development efforts in the area."

Can anyone seriously believe that peace talks are going to be start-able or sustainable with this kind of thing happening?  And on what is feeling like a weekly or even daily basis?  Can anyone really believe that the Palestinians can be brought to the table (and kept at the table) ostensibly to negotiate permanent status issues while Israel carrying out one act of provocation after another in East Jerusalem - acts that not only have huge symbolic weight but, more importantly, are clearly aimed at making a permanent status agreement on Jerusalem impossible?

Yes, Netanyahu is under tremendous pressure from his right-flank, but Jerusalem need not and cannot be the safety valve that he uses to vent right-wing steam.  This is a question, fundamentally, of leadership -- a test of whether Netanyahu is serious that he wants peace and whether he is taking US peace efforts seriously.  

And one final note - both the Shepherds Hotel settlement and the new Mount of Olives settlement are projects of Irving Moskowitz, America's own self-styled Jerusalem settlement serial provocateur.  The same Irving Moskowitz who, aided and abetted by his friend, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, financed the excavation and opening of the Hasmonean Tunnel, leading to the worst violence in Jerusalem in decades.    

It is of course possible that the fact that Moskowitz-backed projects are re-emerging on the Jerusalem Municipal agenda at precisely the same time that Netanyahu is back in the Prime Minister's office is just a coincidence.  But if so, it is the kind of coincidence that bears watching - because we know how this story ended the last time.  

(And for those who have been following this issue, note that Americans can send tax-deductible donations to support Beit Orot via American Friends of Beit Orot, a US registered 501(c)(3) organization).

UPDATE:  Speaking on Israel Radio today, Jerusalem City Council Member Elisha Peleg said: "We are building within Israeli law. Not a single government minister was involved, the prime minister was not involved, this is part of the mayor's policy for Jerusalem, who does not discriminate between Jews and Arabs. This also won't be the last project in East Jerusalem." (Source: Israel News Today, emphasis added)