Another crisis temporarily averted

Ever since Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and acted quickly to annex the Arab city and surrounding villages, it has pretended, under the slogan "united Jerusalem eternal capital of Israel", that this is a permanent situation. Accordingly, it has built Jewish neighborhoods and a network of roads across the green line with the obvious intention of enclosing many of the city’s Arab neighborhoods, cutting them off from the West Bank and rendering them an enclave, geographically and politically. The wall/fence in Jerusalem, which the government fully admits is as much politically as security motivated, is but the latest illustration of this approach.

At the same time, Israeli governments and Jerusalem municipal authorities have done virtually nothing to absorb their captive Arab residents into the fabric of the country. Basically, the authorities have never figured out what to do with them. In his ten years as mayor of Jerusalem prior to 2003, Acting PM Ehud Olmert neglected the city’s 230,000 Palestinian Arab residents, as did his predecessor, Teddy Kollek. Indeed, 39 years after the Six-Day War, social and medical benefits and freedom of movement inside Israel are the only attributes of Israeli-ness that those residents possess. Nor do they seek more: the best indicator as to where their allegiance lies is their refusal to vote in municipal elections and the small number who have applied for full Israeli citizenship (not that Israel ever encouraged them to do so). The result is that, in human terms, this is anything but a permanent situation.

Israel in fact recognized this reality when it acknowledged, in the Oslo agreements, the right of Palestinian Jerusalemites to vote in Palestinian Authority elections. Since then, in the course of more than a decade, a growing number of politicians and a growing percentage of the Israeli public have become increasingly aware of the demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature created by the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In looking for ways to withdraw from Palestinian population centers, more and more mainstream politicians, including Olmert, have even begun to propose ways for Israel to redefine "united Jerusalem" in such a way that it comprises as little of Arab Jerusalem as possible.

All these contradictions in Israeli policy came together in the current Palestinian voting issue. Olmert, thrust into the position of chief Israeli decision-maker, confronted by American pressure, recognizing the precedents of the 1996 and 2005 votes and fearing lest Israel be blamed for a Palestinian decision to postpone the January 25 elections, agreed as his first decision in office to reverse Ariel Sharon’s dictum and permit Palestinian Jerusalemites yet again to vote in Palestinian national elections.

Another Jerusalem crisis averted, however temporarily. With elections looming in both Palestine and Israel, that is the best that can be done for the time being.

But the fuse is burning on a far bigger crisis for Jerusalem. The fence/wall, by separating Palestinian Jerusalemites from the surrounding West Bank, is creating an unbearable situation for hundreds of thousands of people. The situation, if not rectified, is liable to deteriorate into major violence: a third intifada, centering on Jerusalem.

There are two possible ways out of this tragic situation: one Israeli, the other Palestinian.

Assuming Olmert is Israel’s next prime minister, he should include as much as possible of Arab Jerusalem in those areas he seeks to withdraw from in the next phase, either through negotiations or, more likely, unilaterally. Accordingly, the fence/wall should be moved so as to separate Arab and Jewish neighborhoods, which is the logical path for a barrier whose purpose is physical as well as demographic security and whose location has inevitable political connotations. This will not resolve all the heavy religious/political issues of the Temple Mount/Harem al-Sharif, the Old City (which in any case has a wall around it) and the Holy Basin, all of which Israel has to hold onto pending a negotiated political settlement of the conflict. But it will improve the security situation and constitute another step (after Gaza) toward demographic and security sanity for Israel.

If this does not happen, then it is time for Palestinian Jerusalemites to act: not by violence, which would be suppressed brutally in view of the proximity to the city’s Jewish population and its governing institutions, but once again by voting, this time in an Israeli election. With nearly 40 percent of the city’s population, Jerusalem Arabs should vote in the next municipal election with the clear purpose of showing Israel that it is better off without Arab Jerusalem–that Israel’s ill-defined historic and political capital is in danger of being taken over legally (perhaps in coalition with Jerusalem’s a-Zionist ultra orthodox Jews) by an essentially hostile population that Israel insists on keeping captive.

This might be the only way to ensure that Israel’s capital remains Jewish and democratic.