When President Obama arrives Wednesday in Jerusalem, expect that the planners, bureaucrats, and builders in the disputed Israeli capital will be on their best behavior. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office quietly asked the city government and the Interior Ministry earlier this month to hold off on any announcements regarding new construction in East Jerusalem neighborhoods or settlement expansion in the West Bank before and during Obama’s visit.
The aim is to avoid the kind of confrontation that happened three years ago, when Israel’s Interior Ministry announced the construction of 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem, the part of the city Palestinians expect will one day be the capital of their Palestine, while Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel. Biden protested the announcement at the time. Then–secretary of state Hillary Clinton followed up with a phone call to Netanyahu, telling him that the municipal construction threatened the basis of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Israeli officials today say they are taking care to make sure such a debacle does not happen again. Jerusalem’s deputy mayor in charge of strategic planning, Naomi Tsur, tells The Daily Beast in an interview: “It’s not a regular or frequent event when the president visits Jerusalem. We all have to do our best to create an ambience in which he can talk to both parties and perhaps convene them together.” While Tsur says there are desperate construction needs for the city’s Arab and Jewish residents, she also says she understood the request from the prime minister.
“I think it’s understandable,” she says. “In view of the mindset that has been established, that this is how things must be, then we must do whatever we can to help.”
Earlier this month planned announcements for construction of a wastewater facility in East Jerusalem and a new military college atop the Mount of Olives, which falls within the territory Israel won after the 1967 Six-Day War, were delayed, according to Israeli press reports.
“We have learned from past mistakes,” says Danny Ayalon, who stepped down last week as Israel’s deputy foreign minister. “Now the prime minister’s office will make sure nothing gets out of hand. The bureaucratic process in Israel is so intense and prolonged and complicated, for any project you have to visit and revisit it from the different zoning committees six or seven times,” Ayalon says. “Now I am sure it will be absolutely clear and there will not be any mishandling or any mistakes.”
Ayalon however also says that he thought the Obama administration’s response to the construction announcement during Biden’s visit was an overreaction. While the United States has declined to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and has discouraged Israeli construction in East Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods at the working diplomatic level, the high-level public condemnations from Clinton and Biden in 2010 marked a change in tone and escalation of emphasis for the United States on the contentious issue.
Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem-based lawyer who has documented construction in East Jerusalem and advocates against the settlements, said that in 2010 Netanyahu did not know every planning decision in East Jerusalem.
“In the past all kinds of things happened without the prime minister’s knowledge and consent beforehand. This got him into deep water with the president.”
“We have seen a transition in the way Netanyahu handles things,” Seidemann says, referencing the construction announcement during Biden’s visit, which Netanyahu later said he had not been informed of beforehand. “In the past all kinds of things happened without the prime minister’s knowledge and consent beforehand. This got him into deep water with the president. He is now in control of the situation, and nothing happens in East Jerusalem without him knowing about it.”
After the Biden incident, Netanyahu put in place an unofficial and de facto construction freeze for about seven months in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. On the one hand, the prime minister never announced the policy the way he said he would freeze most settlement construction in the West Bank in 2009 as a condition for bringing the Palestinians back to negotiations.
Seidemann says he has seen unprecedented construction in East Jerusalem since the de facto freeze ended in November 2010. But in January and February of 2012, Seidemann says, there was a temporary hiatus in construction in East Jerusalem that he attributed to Netanyahu’s desire to persuade Obama to take military action against Iran.
Tsur says that as someone who often has to plan construction in East Jerusalem, she feels the city’s 900,000 residents are victims of the international dimensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. She acknowledges that after the 2010 incident there was a de facto and unannounced freeze in building inside East Jerusalem.
“An awful lot of unnecessary delay for all of [Jerusalem’s] neighborhoods was because of the freeze,” Tsur says. “Turning a plan for a neighborhood into an issue is profoundly upsetting for the residents of the city. We often feel like we are being treated like a fun jigsaw puzzle that people can play around with.”
Seidemann says he worries about what happens after Obama leaves Israel. “All Netanyahu has to do is to indicate that the previous restraints are not in place,” he says. “We will find ourselves with a surge of controversial development in and around East Jerusalem.”