Adjacent to the southern ramparts of the Old City, next to Dung Gate, is a visitors’ center named the Davidson Center (after its major donor). The Davidson Center is an arm of the Israeli government entity known as the “Corporation for the Development of East Jerusalem (CFDEJ).” CFDEJ control not only the visitors’ center, but also the entire archeological site immediately to the south of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, including the area immediately below the al-Aqsa mosque. A map of the plan can be viewed/downloaded here.
On February 24, news broke in the Israeli pressof a deal, reached behind closed doors and in apparent secrecy, to hand the entire area – both the visitors’ center and the archeological site –to the Elad settler organization.
Where Is This Taking Place?
The tectonic plates of civilization grind against one another most strongly in the area adjacent to the Mughrabi Ramp. Here, the bitter controversy concerning the yet unresolved Mughrabi ramp is in ample evidence. On the north and west of the site is the Western Wall Plaza, created hours after the ceasefire in June 1967 by means of demolition of hundred of Palestinian homes in the historic Mughrabi Quarter. To the east is the esplanade of the Temple Mount, the sensitivity of which requires no explanation. And to the south are the southern wall excavations, managed by the Davidson Center.
The Mughrabi ramp and its adjacent areas have been described as the meeting point (de facto, if not de jure) of three religions: the Western Wall plaza a fiefdom of the Orthodox Jewish establishment, Haram al Sharif administered in large part by the Waqf (Islamic endowment); and the southern wall excavation an expression of the “religion” (in the form mainly of archeology) of secular Israelis. It is no wonder that this small area has been the scene of periodic tensions and eruptions that resonate well beyond the borders of Jerusalem.
From the outset, the archeological excavations adjacent to the Haram/Mount's containing wall generated intense controversy. UNESCO issued strong condemnations of the excavations as early as 1968, and has periodically renewed the condemnations since then. That said, the management of the Davidson Center has shown itself to be more pluralistic than most involved in projects located in the Old City or its historic basin. Indeed, while its perspective is clearly Israeli, its agenda is not exclusionary and it does pay reverence to all of Jerusalem's civilizations. Things like that are on the endangered species list in this city.
What Would be the Deal’s Impact?
Transferring control of one of the most sensitive sites on the planet to an extreme, exclusionary organization such as Elad is an act of colossal irresponsibility. It would radically upset the delicate ecosystem in and around the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. Elad controlling turf immediately below Al Aqsa mosque is a nightmare scenario.
Who Owns the Land?
The area in question was expropriated by Israel in early 1968. While the title to the land is vested in the State of Israel, the State granted the equivalent of ownership rights to a government corporation called the Corporation for the Restoration and Development of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The body in turn leased the right to run the site to another government corporation, The Corporation for the Development of East Jerusalem.
There has been a longstanding dispute between these two government corporations over back rent. This dispute is ostensibly the reason behind the deal with Elad. Under the deal, Elad will pay the outstanding debt of the Corporation for the Development of East Jerusalem (in the amount of 1.5 million shekels) to the Corporation for the Restoration and Development of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. In exchange, the rights to run the site will be transferred to Elad.
To be clear: all of this is pretext. This is not about clearing up a debt. It is about pyromaniacs playing in one of the most combustible sites in the world.
Is the Deal Illegal?
The deal to transfer the site to Elad, absent any tenders and with zero transparency, is patently illegal. Under Israeli law, it is permissible to shift control of State property between one government entity and another without tenders, on the assumption that as government entities, both are protecting and serving the genuine public interest. Under Israel law, State property cannot be transferred in the same manner to private entity, since it cannot be assumed that a private entity is protecting and serving any interest other than its own.
In recent days, both the two government organizations and Elad have manipulated the judicial process in a transparent attempt to give the deal a semblance of legality. There was an existing verdict handed down against the East Jerusalem Development Corporation to pay the back rent. In an agreed amendment to that verdict, it is Elad that will be paying the debt. This is all theater, and in no way undermines the illegality of transferring this site to Elad (see also this recent Haaretz article).
What Happens Next?
To be clear: this is not a done deal. The deal was to have been concluded in the days to come. Now that is has become public, it is unclear what will happen next.
When news of the deal became public, the scheme encountered serious opposition from a number of quarters. The Reform and Conservative movements and the group known as Women of the Wall (which seeks access to the Western Wall for women to pray) asserted that the scheme violates the understandings reached concerning egalitarian prayer at the site. The plan also radically changes the status quo in the area adjacent to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, something which will no doubt concern the Waqf and the Jordanians.
In light of this controversy and the apparent illegalities discussed above, if Netanyahu wants to stop it, he can easily do so. There are other good reasons to suggest that Netanyahu will want to see this deal go away. Additionally, if the deal goes through and Elad gains control over the area directly under the Al Aqsa Mosque, it could destabilize the entire area around the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. It would also raise serious concerns about efforts to alter or challenge the status quo on the Temple Mount. The security implications in themselves could well lead Netanyahu to see this deal as far more trouble than it is worth (similar to the battle over the Mughrabi Gate ramp).
Moreover, this story broke the same week that the Arab world in an uproar regarding the recent Knesset debate over changing the status quo on the Temple Mount. That uproar, and particularly the strong reaction from Jordan, sparked an unusually clear statement from Netanyahu to the effect that his government did not intend to change the status quo at the site. Preventing this deal from going ahead would be entirely consistent with that policy; failing to prevent it would clearly undermine Netanyahu’s credibility on this issue
Given the cumulative impact of the perils of this scheme, the controversy that has ensued and the apparent illegalities discussed above, Netanyahu has compelling reasons to stop its implementation, and he can easily do so based on the plan’s illegality. As of this writing, Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit has ordered the plan put “on hold” (also see here), but a final determination has yet to be made and, in the meantime, the plan continues to proceed toward implementation.