Move Fast on Jerusalem

The hardest issue in the peace process needs to be resolved before settlements make it unresolvable. 

As both secular and religious Israelis know, the book of Psalms enjoins the faithful to cherish the city of Jerusalem: ''If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.''

Yet these days Jerusalem is going unremembered as Secretary of State John Kerry seeks to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after four years of stagnation. Israel, content with the status quo through which it tightens its grip on the parts of the city it occupied during the 1967 war, can only be delighted with this omission. Perhaps Mr. Kerry's reasoning is that since it is so difficult to get the sides back to negotiations as it is, the Jerusalem issue, which is (wrongly) perceived as being intractable, should be left for the end.

But Jerusalem needs immediate attention. The status quo here is unjust, and realities on the ground are moving in a direction that dooms prospects for a compromise solution in which the city becomes the capital of two independent states. Israel is taking advantage of American and international inattention to Jerusalem to foreclose the possibility of a viable Palestinian capital emerging there.

Above all else, Israel wants more time for its project of transforming key parts of East Jerusalem from Arab to Israeli areas. One of the reasons it is so wary of the Arab League peace initiative revived in recent weeks is that accepting it would mean compromising on the Israeli settlement enterprise, both in Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied West Bank.

In pouring cold water on the Arab League's peace concession authorizing territorial swaps as part of an agreement, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed Wednesday that ''the root of the conflict isn't territorial. It began way before 1967.'' Rather, he said, the problem is Palestinian unwillingness to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

But at least for non-fundamentalists on both sides, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very much territorial and Netanyahu plays a decidedly negative role in perpetuating it. While the Arab league and the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas have endorsed an ''agreed'' solution to the Palestinian refugee issue that redresses Israel's demographic concerns in a fashion that effectively assures its existence as a Jewish state, Netanyahu is flatly opposed to vacating the occupied territory in Jerusalem and in the West Bank needed to enable a viable Palestinian state. And all the while, the Israeli premier maintains his backing for irredentist nationalist settlers who are daily recasting Arab territory as Jewish.

On Israel’s independence day last month, Netanyahu’s housing minister, Uri Ariel of the settler-dominated Jewish Home party, visited the E1 area in the West Bank, where the United States has asked Israel not to implement plans for a new residential area. Washington claims that Israeli building at the sensitive spot would negate a two-state solution by severing the West Bank from north to south and cutting off Arab parts of Jerusalem from their West Bank hinterland. But Ariel has little time for such objections. He declared to applause that ''we will fulfill our right and our obligation to build'' and that within a year or a year and a half it will be possible to view the new buildings at the site. Israel is already calling E1 by a new name, Mevasseret Adumim.

Netanyahu may be wary of going ahead with E1 at the height of Kerry's efforts, but history has shown that the settlements always go up in the end, in part because Washington is not willing to go beyond verbal condemnations. The Israeli prime minister of course remembers U.S. and other criticisms of his plans to build the Har Homa settlement in a sensitive part of occupied territory in southern Jerusalem during his first term in office in the late 1990s. Har Homa is now a sprawling neighborhood of more than eleven thousand people, with plans for further growth, and it cuts off the Bethlehem area in the West Bank from parts of the would be Palestinian capital.

But beyond the policy of building new settler neighborhoods in a way that makes it impossible to establish a viable Palestinian capital, Israel is continuing apace with its project of altering the character of Arab areas so that they become Israeli. In the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, which the Israeli government and settlers claim as the city of David, the biblical king, young Israelis working for the antiquities authority could be seen Monday throwing buckets of dirt to each other as part of the biggest dig currently underway in East Jerusalem. The scene may seem innocuous. But it is not: Israel uses archeology in East Jerusalem to take over land, lay claim to real and imagined Jewish and biblical historic ties, and exclude Palestinians from both the past and the present of the area in which they live. In Silwan, digs are actually paid for by the organization that is settling Jews in the area, Elad, which also runs a popular national-park site that stresses the biblical tie.

At times it seems that those digging care more for ancient antiquities than the well-being of the Palestinians living in Silwan today. Five years ago, a road collapsed in Silwan, in the process revealing that the Israel Antiquities Authority had been digging underneath the homes of Palestinians without their permission or even knowledge. This is archaeology gone sinister.