The future of Arab east Jerusalem: Between Labor’s plan and Ramon’s plan

We should not create a vacuum over which Hamas will assume control.

Palestinians walk near an opening in Israel's security fence in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of A-tur (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinians walk near an opening in Israel's security fence in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of A-tur
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Separating from the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem? Absolutely.
The question is how. At the end of the day, the State of Israel must separate itself from most, not all, of the Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem.
The ongoing violence shows this is necessary. The reality of the city demonstrates this is necessary. There is no reason for Shuafat refugee camp or its 35,000 inhabitants to be part of Israel’s capital. There is no longterm logic in Arab a-Sawahra or Umm Lissun being part of the Jerusalem Municipality. I wrote this in my diplomatic plan already in July 2015, long before the terrorist attacks began. The Labor Party’s diplomatic-security plan of February 2016 says the same thing on that issue.
However, the path one takes is sometimes as important as the destination.
We must remind ourselves of this truism especially when leaders rush to act, repeat past mistakes and endanger us all. We should not duplicate the mistakes of the unilateral disengagement from Gaza. The IDF’s withdrawal left a vacuum over which Hamas assumed control. The Likud government of Ariel Sharon chose to implement this step without a Palestinian counterpart. It did so even though a Palestinian party which could demonstrate such an achievement to its public would likely have grown considerably stronger in Palestinian public opinion, and could probably have become a potential Israeli partner and perhaps would have even cooperated with Israel on steps that would address Israeli needs.
The risk of repeating such a mistake remains today. A prime example is the so-called Save Jewish Jerusalem Movement led by Haim Ramon, who holds more stock than any Israeli in the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
The movement advocates policies that would bring upon us a calamity in both the short and long term: a unilateral disengagement from most of Arab east Jerusalem, establishing fences between these areas and the few neighborhoods in the immediate surroundings of the Old City and revoking the residency of roughly 200,000 residents living in them. All this, according to Ramon and company, should be done without any coordination with the Palestinian Authority.
When I read the section of the Labor plan dealing with east Jerusalem I see a very different approach to that of Ramon. And it is no coincidence. We emphasize precisely that lessons must be drawn from the Gaza disengagement.
We should not create a vacuum over which Hamas will assume control.
Moreover, criminal elements easily thrive in a vacuum as has happened in parts of east Jerusalem lying beyond the separation barrier, where for many years the Israel Police do not operate while the State of Israel prevents operation of the Palestinian police.
We must transfer their management to some address. They cannot be left hanging in the air. We go out? Someone else goes in, and they won’t be friendly. As the past taught us, when there is a vacuum it is quickly filled, most often by very malevolent forces.
The transfer of authority ought to be done gradually, responsibly and with as much coordination as possible.
Sweeping revocation of residency will easily stoke the current escalation and violence. Unilaterally erecting additional walls in east Jerusalem would have similar negative impact.
A massive revocation of residency accompanied by building such walls and fences would also cause the PA to do everything it can to show that it refuses to cooperate with such a move. Its security forces would therefore refrain from filling precisely the vacuum that must be filled, leaving the IDF in front of an angry, hungry and frustrated population whose socio-economic situation had dramatically worsened, and with no address for their ire.
What is the alternative? Separating from some east Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods, in as close coordination as possible with the PA. It can be done. To prevent security risks this should be gradual and performance- based. We cannot simply put our faith in cooperation with the PA.
Israel therefore should, for example, at first step enable the Palestinian police to operate only in the Arab neighborhoods lying beyond the separation barrier. These are areas in which the Jerusalem municipality currently does not really supply services, and therefore Israel and the Jerusalem municipality have nothing to lose. Quite the contrary – we can only gain.
If the PA succeeds reducing the level of crime and participation in terrorism and increasing provision of services, then Israel would allow it to operate in additional Arab neighborhoods.
If it fails Israel could instead pursue the plan of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat which calls to pass provision of services in these areas to the IDF’s Civil Administration.
At any rate, any sane person knows that for the separation to succeed, the key is that the transfer of authority must be done responsibly, systematically, gradually and seriously, and not based on simplistically erecting walls, sweepingly revoking residency and self-deludingly telling ourselves that we “got rid of the problem.” It won’t happen. We have tried this. On the contrary: it would only aggravate the problem.
The horizon of transferring additional neighborhoods to the PA would simultaneously be an incentive for successful operation with the PA and for cooperation of the residents with the process. The residents are clearly not really interested in Israeli rule, but are interested in keeping their status as residents in Jerusalem. The status of residency is an issue for an interim agreement or a final status agreement with the PA and it is therefore wise to allow for an interim period in which it would not be harmed, so that the process of transferring authority over the neighborhoods would succeed.
Separation from the Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem is the anchor for the broader gradual separation from the Palestinians toward two prosperous nation states. It is therefore both smart and necessary to implement it as part of a more comprehensive move, as the Labor Party’s Separation Plan suggests. The party plan calls for such a broader move to include a formal Israeli reply to the Arab Peace Initiative, completing the construction of the separation barrier and freezing settlement construction beyond it.
As a veteran resident of Jerusalem and a former member of its city council, I am deeply aware of the city’s fragile social fabric and that separation to two nation states should factor in the human and urban reality. We must have not only smart and precise missiles. We should also on occasion use a smart and precise diplomatic policy. We have not tried this in a long while. Too long. It is only this way that we can ever reach the resolution of the conflict. Progress in east Jerusalem which would occur without harming Israeli security would form an important cornerstone in moving toward resolving the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
We must not repeat past mistakes in the search for one-stroke solutions.
Reality is more complex. We should carry out a gradual and coordinated separation from some of the Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. This is how Jerusalem could be the eternal capital of Israel and at the same time part of an inspiring urban space in which different religions and cultures prosper side by side. It is possible. If you wish, it is no dream.
The author is secretary general of the Labor Party and head of the Knesset Caucus to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict.