Byline: Kevin Peraino
Washington and Jerusalem look closer today to a deal on freezing Israel's West Bank settlement construction than they've been in years. Last week, George Mitchell, the U.S. envoy, suggested that an agreement was imminent, and most observers expect at least a nine-month hiatus to start soon. Even the Israeli government's recent decision to approve 455 new housing units may be a sign that it knows a deal is coming and wants to get a few more buildings in before the deadline.
Yet as the two sides work out the final details on the West Bank, they're looking further apart then ever on one key location: East Jerusalem. That's because Israel views the area as an integral part of the country where it can build at will, while the United States--and most other countries--sees it as occupied territory like the rest of the West Bank, and thus the subject of negotiations on a future Palestinian state.
In the middle of the controversy stands Nir Barkat, Jerusalem's mayor since November 2008. Barkat's responsibilities include approving new construction permits anywhere in Jerusalem. That puts him in a unique position to make Mitchell's life less difficult--or much more so. It's the latter course that's looking more and more likely. The mayor--a 49-year-old secular entrepreneur who made a fortune developing antivirus software--is not a populist zealot. He spent part of his childhood on college campuses in Pasadena, California, and Ithaca, New York, where his father was a physics professor, and he insists that he's well-tuned to Washington's worries. Yet as a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hawkish Likud Party, his stance on settlement building in the ancient Israeli capital is uncompromising. "Jerusalem is totally out of these negotiations," the mayor said in an interview last week.
To Barkat, that's just as it should be. The mayor says that Jews ought to be able to build in all parts of the city, regardless of what the international community thinks. He opposes the Clinton parameters--the former U.S. president's proposal to divide Jerusalem's Jewish and Arab neighborhoods between Israel and a future Palestinian state--and has supported controversial demolitions of Arab housing and Jewish building projects in East Jerusalem that have been condemned by U.S. officials. As far as Barkat is concerned, a Palestinian state is a nonstarter, at least in the short term, and he insists that Jewish building will proceed for as long as he's in charge. "We will not freeze," he said last week.
Such rhetoric has made Barkat, who won election with a 53 percent majority, an increasingly controversial figure at home as well as abroad and among Jews as well as Arabs. Israel's leftists seem slightly confused by the mayor. Like them, he's secular--unusual for a leader of this increasingly devout city. That initially won Barkat some fans among Israel's old elite, who feel they're losing the capital to the ultra-Orthodox. Yet many leftists now believe their trust was misplaced. There are no hard figures to indicate that construction in East Jerusalem has actually increased during his term, but peaceniks believe it's only a matter of time. "He turned out to be a real danger to the stability of Jerusalem," says Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, a left-wing advocacy group. Danny Seidemann, an Israeli human-rights advocate and expert on Jerusalem, complains that …