"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.”
On a recent afternoon, Seidemann gives me his tour of Jerusalem’s fault lines. “Do you have your map?” he asks, tossing me a small map covered in lines and borders and produced by his NGO. I keep it open on my lap as we drive in his Honda up into Har Homa—a settlement built after the Oslo Peace Accords on land that, originally, was to be given back to the Palestinians. It now houses some 12,000 Israelis in new buildings carved out from gleaming Jerusalem stone. There are cranes everywhere, building even more construction. Har Homa, he says, “is not fatal in and of itself to the two-state solution. But it is a red flag for the Palestinians.”
That said, after decades of lecturing audiences that the two-state solution remains possible, Seidemann now believes, if current settlement and other building continues apace, that opportunity is ending. Last year, 2,300 building tenders were issued—more than the previous three years combined—and an explosion of construction began, the likes of which has not been seen since 1967.
We swing through Beit Safafa, a Palestinian village that straddles the Green Line. The Israelis are busily dividing this already fraught spot with a multilane highway that will connect the West Bank’s Etzion Block and parts of East Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. The town, for the first time ever, has recently seen massive social protests. We are here, in part, to see how far the road has progressed. The earth is a gaping maw; the road is well under way.
But most contested is the slice of land known, unpoetically, as “E1,” a strip of scrubby rock and hillside between Maale Adumim, the massive Jewish settlement east of Jerusalem, and Mt. Scopus. More than a decade ago, Seidemann, who calls E1 the “fatal heart attack of the two-state solution,” began telling all who would listen that to build in E1 would destroy the two-state solution, by undermining the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state, slicing it in half.
Hagit Ofran, director of the Settlement Watch Project at Peace Now, says Seidemann took his concerns to the “Israeli public, to the media, to the diplomatic arena.” If people today understand what’s at stake, it’s because of Seidemann, Ofran says. “E1 is one very distinct example of understanding something very dramatic and making the advocacy around it so that today the whole world knows that E1 is a problem,” she says. “He understood what it meant.”
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention to build in E1 this past fall—a project now on hold after President Obama’s visit to the region—Seidemann went ballistic, though he says he wasn’t surprised. He’d been expecting a provocation. Now he wants the current American administration to understand the problem, and act.
Born in Syracuse, New York, to a Holocaust refugee father, Daniel Seidemann moved to Israel in 1973 with a Cornell degree, riding the Zionist fervor whipped up by the 1967 Six-Day War. He joined the Army, got his law degree at Hebrew University, and never looked back. He speaks Hebrew with his daughters—a ridiculously beautiful trio, fluent in English, who dote on their father as though he were a modern, secular Tevye. In person he is infinitely more cheerful than his message, full of erudite references to Kierkegaard and Archimedes. And he might just be the most important cartographer in the Middle East. Whether or not you know his name, Daniel Seidemann is one of the essential keys to keeping the moribund peace process on life support.
On the day Danny, as pretty much everyone refers to him, takes me out on his tour, his appearance, like his presentation, is stripped bare of all pretension. He has a full head of stark white hair that belies his age (61). His jeans are faded and his sweatshirt has a color that was possibly once tomato. His sneakers have nearly lost their labels. He shows me the same things he will show the American Willow Creek evangelical church two days later; gives me the same spiel he will unspool to the military brass I am not allowed to name.
It is a brilliantly sunny day. Soon we are at the Bethlehem checkpoint where he wants to show me the gates that Palestinians who work in Jerusalem must pass through and the relatively new security “sleeve”—a surreal, futuristic concrete corridor that Israelis can use to drive almost into downtown Bethlehem, allowing them to visit the grave of Rachel, the biblical matriarch, without having to pass through a checkpoint or face a Palestinian. To our right, he points out the olive groves on the Israeli side of the wall. The groves belong to a Palestinian man whom Seidemann represents. When the wall originally went up, the Israelis claimed the land was absentee property—an excuse that would allow them to build on the land. But Seidemann won back the right to harvest the trees for his client.
“This is not only humanitarian,” Seidemann explains. “We try to anticipate what will happen next, and then flag crises before they break out.”
Later, he elaborates. “This is not real estate. It is the epicenter, the volcanic core of the conflict. Most of the issues between Israelis and Palestinians can be addressed by mortal men and women because it is a territorial, national, political conflict. But when you get into the area of the Old City and around it you are talking about sacred space and repositories of historical memory. This is where the tectonic plates of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and the Arab world meet.”
We stop in Sur Bahir, a Palestinian village that hugs Jerusalem’s southern flank. In a bakery, we eat sugary pastries as a worker tells us his cousin’s house was demolished after he tried to add on to it without building permits. “Israeli rule over East Jerusalem is unsustainable,” says Seidemann, back in the car. “It is collapsing under the weight of its own fictions. We are not capable of delivering a letter in East Jerusalem. We are not capable of providing services, we don’t want these people! We don’t give them political rights!” On the road, the signs are in Arabic, the majority of women are in headscarves. We see exactly one other Israeli, a border guard. It is more Ramallah than West Jerusalem.
In the afternoon, we drive the route of the glossy new light rail, which runs along the Old City walls, the pre-1967 no-man’s land between Jordan and Israel. “If Obama gets the parties in a room,” he says, “they are not being asked to create a radical new reality but to leave the parallel universe ... where Jerusalem is an idyllic, undivided city, and recognize that it is a binational city that is already divided. Treat the de facto borders as political ones and you have achieved 95 percent of the solution in Jerusalem.”
Outside, that is, of the major sticking points of the Old City and its immediate environs. We drive through the east, past the American Colony Hotel into Sheikh Jarrah and Um-Harun, Palestinian neighborhoods threatened with takeovers by radical Israeli settlers, and up past the shell of the Shepherd Hotel. We stop on Mt. Scopus to see E1, in the distance. Further on, Seidemann points out the proposed new site of the Israel Defense Force college—on the top of the Mount of Olives—a thorn in the side of the Christian communities. We career past settler homes in the midst of Palestinian neighborhoods; mini-settlement high-rises that have gone up in areas of the east like Ras al-Amoud; fortified enclaves with massive Israeli flags and around-the-clock security, snipers that pace the roofs.
A few days later, I meet Nazmi Jubeh, a Palestinian negotiator and professor of history and archeology at Birzeit University. “People like Danny Seidemann are causing a lot of problems to the Palestinians,” he quips, between drags of a Gauloise. In part, because of him, he says, “I discovered that I do not hate the Israelis.”
Seidemann’s whole being, and his cause, says Jubeh, makes it clear to Palestinians that not every Israeli is a settler or an occupier. “He believes that in order to save his own society, he has to stop the occupation. He believes clearly—and this is what we share—that occupation is damaging both occupied and occupier.”
As Seidemann himself puts it, late one night, in a phone call: the Zionism and love of country that motivated him to enlist in the Israeli Army as a young man is what also drives him today to map the fluctuating boundaries of his city. “My motivations are unabashedly patriotic.”