Jerusalem -- on the Brink

Article excerpt

When Jews think of Jerusalem, they generally have in mind the Western Wall, the Israel Museum, Ben Yehuda Mall, and Yad Vashem. Jewish tourists, like most Israeli Jews, don't spend much time in eastern Jerusalem -- despite the fact that this part of the Holy City holds the most historical, spiritual and strategic significance for the Jewish people.

But in the wake of the impasse of the peace talks at Camp David (much of it over the status of Jerusalem, it is said), perhaps it is time to understand the dynamics of the eastern part of the city and the implications of Yasir Arafat's daily declarations that his Palestine state will have east Jerusalem as its capital.

In the face of Palestinian Authority rhetoric, Israeli politicians both Left and Right cite "Jerusalem, the undivided capital of Israel" as the consensus mantra. It's the definition of the phrase that's fraught with surprises.

Some ministers in Ehud Barak's cabinet, for example, publicly expressed their opposition to the project under construction at Maaleh HaZeitim (Ras el Amud). Yet this is a development with all permits intact, on undisputed Jewish-owned land. According to Haim Ramon, minister without portfolio for Jerusalem affairs, the project is a provocation and a threat to the peace process. Thus, the idea that Jews have the right to build and live wherever they wish in Jerusalem, under Israeli sovereignty, is an unacceptable concept for people like Ramon, who nevertheless continue to proclaim their belief in a "united Jerusalem."

Without the strategic assets of Jewish development in eastern Jerusalem, the city would indeed be divided, de facto. Jews will continue to work and live in the western section, and Arabs will predominate in the eastern part of the city where so much of Jewish history took place.

The idea of surrounding the inner core of Jerusalem with areas of Jewish settlement is not new. Successive Israeli governments since 1967 have consistently carried out this policy -- developing the neighborhoods of Maaleh Adumim, Pisgat Zeev, Givat Zeev, East Talpiot, and the re-established Neve Yaakov (founded in 1924). Even a cursory look at a map of greater Jerusalem will reveal that these communities play a crucial role in forming a buffer against PA efforts to achieve territorial contiguity between the Old City and the three nearby areas already under PA control -- Ramallah to the north, Abu Dis to the east, and Bethlehem to the south. If this contiguity were to be achieved, Arafat will have created a viable capital within shouting distance of the Temple Mount.

On the northernmost ridge of the Mount of Olives sits Beit Orot -- a hesder yeshiva, and development initiative. Located just below the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University, the yeshiva, founded by MK Rabbi Benny Elon and former MK Hanan Porat, educates and houses more than 100 students every year. Until recently, the yeshiva maintained a hall for weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs, which brought more than 50,000 people to the Mount of Olives every year. A beautiful mini-promenade was created last summer to take advantage of the spectacular view over the Temple Mount. Beit Orot hopes to soon obtain permission to start building the first Jewish neighborhood on the Mount of Olives in two thousand years.

Down the hill and to the west of Beit Orot lies the newly reclaimed neighborhood of Shimon HaTzaddik (established in 1891). Less than half a mile from Meah Shearim (1874) and north of the Old City, the area is named after the nearby tomb of Shimon HaTzaddik. Israeli flags now fly proudly over the complex of small houses and a synagogue that make up the neighborhood.

Ownership of the site, and a six dunam area of the neighborhood, lies in the hands of the Vaad Sephardi Haredi -- a Sephardic communal body whose members populated the area until the Arab riots of the 1920s and 1930s drove them out. Jewish organizations recently have been quietly acquiring the "protected tenancy rights" of the Arab tenants who had squatted there for many years. …