(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Despite four decades of intensive construction of Jewish housing in east Jerusalem, the Jewish majority in the city has fallen from 74 percent in 1967 to 65% today.
The Israelis have built fast, but the Palestinians have bred faster.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s response has been to ignore the obvious solution to the demographic problem and instead proclaim Jerusalem a “united city, the eternal capital of the Jewish people,” a slogan masquerading as a policy.
The borders of today’s Jerusalem were not fixed by the Bible but by a handful of civil servants and a general, Rehavam Ze’evi, who comprised the government committee which drew up the annexation map in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War. In taking 70 square kilometers of former Jordanian territory, only six of which had been part of Jordanian Jerusalem, they were guided primarily by security considerations – inclusion of maximum high ground and minimum Arab population – not by historical memory. The territory taken, which tripled the size of Jerusalem, was almost entirely rural and included land from 28 outlying Arab villages. Also included was the Old City, site of the Israelite capital for a millennium and the focus of Jewish prayer ever since, but measuring less than one square kilometer.
“ETERNAL CAPITAL” promotes the notion that anything Israel does in east Jerusalem is justified by the inherent sovereignty granted Israel by history. However, less than 2% of east Jerusalem was ever part of sovereign Jewish Jerusalem in antiquity. Israel can attempt to justify the annexation in terms of national interest – the war on the West Bank in 1967 was started by Jordan as part of a pan-Arab alliance whose victory would have meant Israel’s destruction. It can argue the right to remake borders after a defensive war, as European powers have ever done. But the quasi-religious rhetoric employed by Netanyahu, with its implied claim of sanctity, freezes the mind and undermines the ability to seek practical solutions.
A political solution for the Old City and its visual periphery to the south and east – three square kilometers in all – will require diplomatic imagination of the highest order in any peace talks. But the rest of so-called east Jerusalem has no more sanctity or connection to “eternal Jerusalem” than any village on the West Bank.
Netanyahu is correct in asserting that all his predecessors since 1967 also sought to expand the Jewish presence in east Jerusalem. They even used the same slogans. But two of the most recent, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, recanted in the end and called for ceding the Arab neighborhoods to a Palestinian state. By doing so, they were acknowledging that times have changed, that without compromise on Jerusalem there can be no peace, that the Palestinians also have legitimate claims on the city.
They were acknowledging too that Israel’s primary concern is not territorial but demographic. Relinquishing the Arab neighborhoods would place the 270,000 (and counting) Arabs in east Jerusalem on the other side of any future political divide rather than keeping them as a disgruntled population inside Israel and a growing weight on its endangered Jewish majority.
NETANYAHU, HOWEVER, continues to insist on holding onto the Arab neighborhoods because they are “Jerusalem.” Furthermore, on his watch and that of Mayor Nir Barkat, groups of Jewish nationalist-religious extremists have stepped up moves into the heart of Arab neighborhoods, Sheikh Jarrah for example, a particularly poisonous development that ensures perpetual conflict.
Because of the existential fears that gripped the country on the eve of
the Six Day War and the spectacular victory that followed, even secular
Israelis came down with “Jerusalemitis,” an infatuation not sated by
prayer or quiet contemplation but by possession of every piece of turf
labeled Jerusalem. However, there is widespread realization today that
neither Israel’s vital interests nor the international community can
indefinitely tolerate the current status quo. It is time for solutions
that would permit two disparate populations to live in mutual respect
in proximity to each other, not in a contrived “united city.”
Any redivision of the city would not be along the pre-1967 lines, given
the changes on the ground, including construction of Jewish
neighborhoods on more than one-quarter of east Jerusalem’s territory.
But it would permit the Palestinians to plant their flag with dignity
on a piece of land they too could call Jerusalem (al-Kuds) – a name to
die for, but also, perhaps, a name worth living for alongside that
other earthly Jerusalem.
The writer is author of The Battle for Jerusalem, an account of the
1967 battle, and was for a decade the Jerusalem beat reporter for The
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