Mapping The Dangerous Future Of Jerusalem
"The quip in Hebrew is ‘everyone pisses in the swimming pool. Not everyone does it from the diving board.’ What we’ve been watching in the last year is an unprecedented surge in settlement activities.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has been pissing from the high board, and what we hear from D.C. is, ‘hey, there is a light rain.’”
Daniel Seidemann is not a man who trades in verbal niceties. An attorney by trade, American by birth, Israeli by choice, and director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, the NGO he founded, Seidemann has spent the last 20-odd years understanding, anticipating, and cautioning others about the ever-changing map of this burning city. He is a one-man early-warning system for any changes that will undermine a two-state solution and force a one-state reality. So detailed is his knowledge it seems, at times, Seidemann knows of every shovel, real or proposed, digging into the ground of this contested land, every pile of dirt shifting hands between Israelis and Palestinians.
We’re sitting in his car, outside the shell of the Shepherd Hotel, a controversial construction site in East Jerusalem. “I believe that the rapid decline of American credibility on Israel-Palestine began here,” he says, arguing that the Americans failed to stop what some see as a provocation: the issuance of building permits in a historic neighborhood for a high-rise that would provide some 20 units to settlers determined to set down Jewish roots in the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem.
Soap-box aside, Seidemann is no flag-burning lefty; he is a self-proclaimed patriot, a blue-and-white-flag-waving, vocal, and unapologetic Zionist. And it is in service of the Jewish state, he says, that he has become an eagle-eyed observer of the most fraught map of all—that of Jerusalem, which has been set aside in diplomatic negotiations until “final status” agreements and, theoretically, peace is at hand. He understands better than anyone that Jerusalem is an essential piece of the puzzle that cannot be postponed.
Land for peace has been a mantra—or a curse—for decades now. If nuclear or climate doomsday is measured in minutes to midnight, then for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the two-state-solution doomsday are lines on the map. Seidemann is the one who monitors that map, the one who stays up at night, making sure the lines don’t move so far as to undermine the possibility of a true land-for-peace deal, the agreement laid out by President Clinton in 2000 that would reapportion the West Bank and occupied territories, allocating Palestinians a contiguous strip of Palestinian land and Israelis Jewish territory. But while the doomsday clock is a public timepiece, Seidemann’s work is largely behind the scenes, monitoring the map and whispering to officials. This is a core piece of Seidemann’s spiel: creating PowerPoints and maps, and then taking dignitaries out in his compact car or by bus to point out the bulldozers, the land shifting.
“If you work in the United States government on Jerusalem, you will encounter Danny,” says Todd Deatherage, a State Department official during the Condoleezza Rice era. “What makes him so interesting is that he’s a deeply committed patriot with an understanding that the Israel—the Jerusalem—he wants is predicated on two national groups and three faith communities coming to accommodation who all have legitimate claims. And he does that [with an eye] to current contemporary geopolitical Jerusalem and a sense of history.”
Alon Sachar, who worked alongside George Mitchell on negotiations during the first Obama administration, agrees. “His information is totally reliable and he is totally transparent; he’d say, ‘This is what I think and this is what I know.’” At first, Sachar would try to check and cross-check Seidemann’s information against that of city officials. But “after a while, I didn’t even second-guess the information he was telling me,” says Sachar. “We developed a very, very close relationship pretty quickly.”
Seidemann’s ability to form close bonds and provide what he calls his “bar mitzvah lessons” on the conflict has given him entree to a wide circle. Among those who have received his counsel are the American diplomat Dennis Ross, former President Jimmy Carter, the late Palestinian politician Faisal Husseini, the conservative libertarian Grover Norquist, and even members of the pop band Maroon 5. (Bassist Mickey Madden met Seidemann at a Los Angeles event on the future of Jerusalem and subsequently came to Israel for the Seidemann tour. Needless to say, he was the Seidemann daughters’ favorite dinner guest to date.)
Seidemann himself is protective of such relationships, dubbing every other anecdote “off the record.” He is well aware that, especially in Israel, behind-the-scenes pressure is far more effective than a splashy headline. Yet, as Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now puts it: “I don’t know another person who is not a government official who has access like him.”
That doesn’t translate into universal affection. “I’m allergic to bulls--t,” he says, in his typically brusque manner. But that sometimes means angering those on the left who might otherwise be his natural allies. And indeed, many on the left see him as just a bit too faithful to the Israeli government perspective, a bit too accommodating. His devotion to two states—rather than, say, one democratic state, has also not won him friends in protest circles. On the right, his relentless exposure of Israeli government practices have made him suspect among settlers as well. “I go where the evidence takes me and that doesn’t make me popular in quarters of true believers of any ilk,” he says.
“He is one of the most knowledgeable, passionate observers—in many respects prophetic—about what would present difficulties, and he has been warning folks for a long time about unilateral acts that the Israelis have undertaken,” says Aaron David Miller, the vice president for New Initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson Center who spent years in the trenches of Middle East peace process, and describes Seidemann as “a person of great integrity and great courage.”
“I’m sure he’s proven to be an annoying voice for certain constituency,” says Miller. “I’m sure some people would situate him on one part of the spectrum or another and dismiss him. But Danny is an observer and a reporter more than anything else—that is critically important.”