Settlement Freeze? What Settlement Freeze?

Say this much for Nir Barkat, the multimillionaire venture capitalist who serves as mayor of Jerusalem, the world’s most contested city: he doesn’t pull his punches.

Just one day after press reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government had ordered a freeze on new Jewish construction in contested East Jerusalem, Barkat offered his own blunt message to the Obama administration and special Mideast envoy George Mitchell: forget about it.

“There’s no freeze,” Barkat told a group of reporters at a Washington restaurant Tuesday night. “There is building going on. There will be more building going on.”

Barkat, a former paratrooper who was elected mayor in Dec. 2008, came to Washington this week amid a near crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations that centers around the future of his city. The Obama administration wants Jerusalem’s status left open for peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. But Barkat made clear that, as far as he’s concerned, there’s nothing to talk about: Jerusalem must remain united under Israeli rule; not even a few blocks of the eastern section, captured by Israel in 1967, can be carved out for a Palestinian capital.

There are many issues on which the Israelis can be flexible, Barkat said at a dinner sponsored by The Israel Project, a Washington, D.C.–based group that a spokeswoman says is dedicated to supporting the position of the Israeli government, whatever that may be at any given time. But, Barkat added, “there is one thing that we must not be flexible on—and it’s the unity of Jerusalem. Giving the Palestinians any grip on the city of Jerusalem is like giving them a Trojan horse.” There is, he added, a “general consensus” in Israel that dividing Jerusalem “is not part of the discussion.”

Barkat says he is confident that the recent stories about Netanyahu’s government ordering some sort of settlement freeze are bogus, floated by “opposition oriented” politicians. In fact, as Netanyahu himself recently publicly declared, his government continues to reject any halt on new Jewish construction in the city. But other reports suggest there may be at least a temporary lull in the planning process for new construction.

To prove his point that everything is “business as usual,” Barkat came to The Israel Project’s dinner with a giant color-coded map showing what he called “the master plan” for his city. On the map were multiple areas of new construction for new homes and apartments for Jews in the Arab parts of the city. The building of such homes will continue—as will building of new Arab homes in the city, he said.

And what if, a reporter asked, the Obama administration were to take the advice of some (like former national-security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft) and lay out its own Mideast peace proposal and seek to impose it on the parties? Such a peace plan would almost surely include East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. How would Israel react?

“It will not fly,” Barkat said, matter of factly. “The Israeli public will not enable that to happen.”

Good luck, George Mitchell.

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