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"Clear Ambiguity" - Olmert, Settlements, & East Jerusalem

What to make of current Israeli policy regarding settlement construction?

On the one hand, we have Ehud Olmert's solemn commitment at Annapolis: No new settlements, no settlement expansion. And on that same hand, more or less (perhaps minus one or two fingers), we have the PM's explicit letter Of December 31, instructing the ministers of defense, housing and agriculture to refrain from authorizing any construction in the West Bank without his and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's prior approval. Specifically, "construction, new building, expansion, preparation of plans, publication of residency tenders and confiscation of land stemming from other settlement activities in the (West Bank) area will not go forward and will not be implemented without requesting and receiving in advance approval by the defense minister and the prime minister."

Clear, yes? Unambiguous, yes?

No. The prime minister's letter did not address construction in East Jerusalem. So in that regard, we have instead Olmert's statement to his party's ministers on December 30 that ""the sweeping order regarding all of Judea and Samaria won't touch upon Jerusalem, but even on Jerusalem, we must act wisely and cautiously."

Indeed - at least up to the "wisely and cautiously" part.

So, for example, despite Olmert's promise to Shas leader Eli Yishai that there would be no construction freeze in the greater Jerusalem area, the government in late January advised the Jerusalem District Court that it would not approve the continued building of the Givat Ze'ev neighborhood. A couple of weeks earlier, Olmert refused to authorize the completion of a new neighborhood in Ma'aleh Adumim. These were not trivial decisions. They were taken in the face of the passionate pleading of the settler movement and of Shas. Under normal circumstances, they would merit applause.

The problem, however, is that at virtually the same time, construction has begun on 200 housing units in the Shimon Hatzaddik compound, in the heart of East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarra neighborhood - construction that involves the demolition of the homes of dozens of Palestinian families who live there. (The area is very close to the American Colony Hotel.)

And in the meanwhile, the American bingo millionaire Irving Moskowitz has bought the nearby Shepherd's Hotel, a long-time East Jerusalem landmark. He apparently intends to build several dozen housing units - for Jews - there. The legal issues surrounding these developments are quite thorny, but their demographic consequences are straightforward: Significant development of the areas as a Jewish neighborhood will cut the Old City off from the Palestinian neighborhoods in northern Jerusalem. That will not only be the effect; that is the purpose. Knesset member Benny Elon says plainly that the new neighborhood is meant "to create a Jewish continuum surrounding the Old City."

So which is it? And where is Condoleezza Rice, who weighed in so heavily when other building plans were (e.g, E1 and Har Homa) announced? And who is Ehud Olmert? If we ask "the real" Ehud Olmert to stand up, who will rise? What's his line?

Which brings me to the Winograd report, the analysis of Israel's failures in the Second Lebanon War. Whether the authors of the report pulled their punches we will not know until they publish their memoirs. What we do know already is the both Olmert and former Defense Minister Amir Peretz came off much more lightly than they had months earlier in the commission's interim report. And for that, oddly, we may be grateful.

Grateful for one reason: There is only a slim chance that the key people on both sides of the conflict will act on what we know they believe - that if this window of opportunity closes, it may be a very long time before a new window opens. But such chance as there is vanishes if Olmert is replaced, as people assume he would be, by Bibi Netanyahu. It's a crude reason to feel gratitude, hardly a sufficient reason for celebration. But it's a solid reason to experience relief.

And then, as if we might forget it, is Gaza, and the border crossing and all that. But this is enough to deal with for now.