No realistic strategy

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On April 9, 2003, when the first four Jewish families moved into a new housing development at Ras al-Amud in the heart of East Jerusalem, Israeli settlement policy in the city reached a new level of absurdity.

On the one hand, successive Israeli governments and Jerusalem municipalities have succeeded in the course of 35 years since 1967 in “uniting” the city, thereby rendering it increasingly difficult to repartition Jerusalem into Jewish and Arab capitals, or to solve the conflict by creating a coherent, contiguous Palestinian Arab capital in Jerusalem. On the other hand, these same governments and municipalities are unable and/or unwilling to treat Jerusalem’s 230,000 Arab residents as equal citizens, and have no realistic strategy for rationalizing their status within the prevailing scheme of settlement.

In 2000-2001, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat–neither of whom even began to understand the needs and constraints of the other side in Jerusalem–tried to negotiate the final status of the city, they ended up, with the assistance of US President Bill Clinton, discussing an approach that would assign all Jewish neighborhoods to the Israeli capital, Yerushalayim, and all Arab neighborhoods to the Palestinian capital, al-Quds. This clumsy arrangement was demographically sound but geographically very convoluted. Still, with the help of a warm peace and imaginative road and bridge construction to link Jews with Jews and Arabs with Arabs and to ensure territorial contiguity between the West Bank and the Palestinian capital, it might have been made to work. But it would not have been easy to “sell” to the Israeli public, and when Arafat’s contempt for the Jewish roots of the Temple Mount/Harem a-Sharif became known, we lost the opportunity for even a cold peace.

Since then, Israelis have taken up residence in Har Homa, which blocks contiguity between Arab Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and, most recently, in Ras al-Amud–a tiny island of Jewish families surrounded by tens of thousands of Palestinians.

What have we created, and why?

In 1967, Israel hastily redrew the borders of Jerusalem based on the mistaken assumption that it would soon be told by the international community to return all its wartime conquests in the West Bank, and would have to defend the Old City, the Temple Mount and the “Holy Basin” (City of David-Mount of Olives) against hostile Arab military emplacements situated in close proximity. Hence new municipal boundaries were drawn through isolated Arab villages along hilltops east of the city, and the airstrip north of Kalandia was incorporated lest the city again be besieged as in 1948.

New Jewish neighborhoods were laid out in the eastern city to ensure Israel’s foothold. When heavy settlement activity commenced in the West Bank in 1977, one key rationale was the need to buttress enlarged Jerusalem with additional Jewish population centers for security purposes.

Israel’s military strategy regarding Jewish Jerusalem soon proved anachronistic, as it made peace with Jordan and it became clear that a Palestinian state would pose no military threat to any part of Israel. The demographic upshot has been to entrap the Palestinian residents within the expanded city. Israel never encouraged them to become Israeli citizens, nor do they wish to. The municipal services they receive are a tiny fraction of those allotted to Jewish residents. Most recently the security fence, though erected for legitimate reasons, has cut off even some of Jerusalem’s Palestinian population from their sources of work, education and sustenance.

In fact, Israel simply never had a recognizable strategy regarding over a third of Jerusalem’s inhabitants and never formulated a convincing reply to the demand of all Palestinians that the city’s sovereign, religious, municipal, cultural and commercial centrality to them be recognized and incorporated into an agreed solution. Notably, with the exception of Barak’s brief and messy negotiating experiment, the policies of successive Israeli governments and Jerusalem municipalities, Labor and Likud, have been remarkably uniform in this regard. They have simply been hoping for the past 35 years that the problem would “go away”–even as they repeatedly exacerbated it.

In the early ’90s an Israeli minister of interior, a political dove, suggested to the late Faisal Husseini, then the Palestine Liberation Organization official responsible for the Jerusalem portfolio, that Jerusalem’s Palestinian population could solve the problem in one fell swoop by ceasing to boycott municipal elections. By voting en masse and combining with the city’s growing ultra-orthodox Jewish population, they could constitute a ready non-Zionist majority in Israel’s capital city, thereby obliging the country’s leaders to get rid of them by repartitioning Jerusalem.

Husseini rejected the idea because it would “recognize” Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem; sadly, the Palestinian approach to a solution has been at least as stubborn and unimaginative as that of Israel.

The slogan “united Jerusalem, eternal capital of Israel” (still adhered to by the Likud but no longer by Labor) never fully corresponded with either the facts on the ground or Israel’s declared willingness to negotiate the Jerusalem issue. The problem is that there must be compromises in Jerusalem if we are ever to end the conflict, yet Ras al-Amud and similar “facts on the ground” are making this more difficult with every passing day.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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