In the first major Republican challenge to President Obama's Israel policy, former US presidential candidate Mike Huckabee visited a number of controversial Jewish housing projects in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem on Monday.
The former governor of Arkansas – a Southern Baptist minister who was one of the main contenders for the Republican Party's 2008 nomination for president – took issue with Obama's insistence that Israel freeze the expansion of all Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Standing next to a new Israeli housing compound wedged into the Arab neighborhood of Abu Dis and abutting the looming cement security barrier, he compared placing restrictions on where Jews can live to the racial segregation of his childhood in the American South, saying, "I can't understand it at all."
Mr. Huckabee, who may well have designs on another presidential run, is in Israel as the guest of The Jerusalem Reclamation Project, run by the settler group Ateret Cohenim. Under the project, the group buys real estate – both land and existing buildings – in Arab areas of Jerusalem where Palestinians hope to make the capital of their future state. A tax-exempt organization that receives most of its revenue from US donors, the group also regularly moves Jews into Arab neighborhoods, which would complicate any effort to partition Jerusalem as part of a peace plan.
The Obama administration recently spoke out against Israel allowing the group to pursue plans to turn an old building known as the Shepherd Hotel, in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, into a 20-unit apartment complex for Israelis. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been at odds with Obama's position, insisting that he would not accept limits on Israel building anywhere in the city it considers its "eternal and undivided" capital.
Irving Moskowitz, the Jewish-American millionaire who bought the hotel and gave it to the settler group, donated $2,300 – the maximum contribution limit at the time – to Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign, as did Moskowitz' wife, Cherna, according to the campaign-finance tracking website opensecrets.org. The couple gave a total of $50,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2007.
Huckabee, who was scheduled to speak at a dinner Monday at Shepherd Hotel, said that while his three-day trip to Israel was not timed to rebuff Obama's Middle East policy, it was opportune nonetheless.
"The timing was not specifically tied to the Obama administration's policies, but maybe it's providential that it coincides because it does point out that those policies are a dramatic change from the position that the US government under both Democratic and Republican presidents have taken," he said in Abu Dis, the sweeping backdrop of Jerusalem behind him and a bevy of reporters and supporters in tow.
"Our primary concern ought to be whether or not Iran is weaponizing nuclear material, not whether 20 peaceful Jewish families happen to be moving into a neighborhood in their own country," said Huckabee, whose three-day trip is focused mainly on settlements.
Huckabee also compared the talk of having Jerusalem partitioned so that it would be under the control of two governments, one Israeli and one Palestinian, to the US and Canada trying to share control of Detroit. "It's inconceivable that two sovereign governments claim control over the same piece of real estate," he said. "I don't know how it's workable."
Daniel Luria, the executive director of the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, led Huckabee around several of the controversial East Jerusalem sites where Jews are in the process of being settled. These included a large multistory complex called Maale Zeitim in the Arab neighborhood of Ras el-Amud and projects in the City of David, part of the neighborhood of Silwan.
"Peace can be achieved when Jews and Arabs live together under Jewish sovereignty," Mr. Luria told the Monitor. "The concept of East Jerusalem simply doesn't exist today," he added. A political solution to turn part of the city over to Palestinian control would mean having "an Al Qaeda-Hamas entity on our back doorstep," said Luria, who was cited in the center-left Israeli paper Haaretz on Monday as saying an estimated 60 percent of Ateret Cohenim's funding came from US donors.
Huckabee's motives and aims questioned
Several antisettlement groups held a protest outside Shepherd Hotel dinner, which was closed to the general public and the media but was expected to include several right-wing members of the Knesset and of Netanyahu's Cabinet.
Ir Amim, an Israeli group that opposes the work of Ateret Cohenim and other settlement efforts inside Jerusalem, criticized Huckabee's visit as an opportunistic trip that would frustrate attempts to reach a two-state solution.
"This strange dinner is an outcome of an alliance established between the rightist, extremist association whose declared goal is to prevent a future political settlement, and an American politician who is hoping to gain political capital at the expense of Jerusalem's stability and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Ir Amim said in a statement. "It is not appropriate for the Israeli ministers and members of Knesset to participate in such a bizarre celebration, and to allow a foreign politician to gain questionable political capital at the expense of the immediate interests of Jerusalem residents and the Israeli public in general."