The focus of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has shifted in a few brief months from Gaza to Jerusalem, which is fast reaching a boiling point. Many forces are at work in the transformation of the ongoing struggle between extremists on both sides into a widespread conflagration embracing growing portions of the two communities. The policies and actions of Israel’s current leaders have done — to put it mildly — little to calm the situation. In many instances, they have stoked the fires of intolerance and fanaticism, thereby contributing to the escalation of a wave of violence now on the verge of spiraling out of control. The question is why, in an atmosphere so rife with explosive potential, has the Netanyahu government continued on a track which cannot but lead to another lethal collision with potentially ominous ramifications?
Jerusalem has traditionally been the most volatile meeting point of Palestinians and Israelis. Following the 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem and the redrawing of its municipal boundaries, successive Israeli governments have imposed policies designed to entrench Israel’s hold on the city — more often than not at the expense of its Palestinian residents and to their detriment. This is why even the most minor shifts have upset the delicate balance in Jerusalem, unleashing spurts of violence that have extended far beyond its municipal boundaries.
The first and second intifadas centered on the city; the construction of the separation barrier further exacerbated relations; and nary has a day passed in recent years without several instances of rock-throwing and Arab-baiting. In this climate of continuous tension and rising friction — augmented by increasingly charged emotions in the wake of violent outbursts sparked by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens, the subsequent brutal assassination of Mohamed Al-Khdeir and the spillover effects of the Gaza war this summer — any little misstep can ignite a virtually uncontrollable blaze.
This dynamic — evident to anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of the flammable human fabric that is Jerusalem — makes it even more difficult to understand the latest Israeli moves in the city. Since September (and with greater frequency in the past few weeks), the Netanyahu government has issued a series of tenders for construction in Gilo, Har Homa and, just this past week, in Ramat Shlomo — all Jewish neighborhoods beyond the Green Line. This stepped-up expansion could not but arouse the ire of Palestinians, the Arab world and the international community. It has been compounded by official support for further Jewish settlement in the heart of Palestinian sections of the city — most recently in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah — as if flaunting a Jewish presence in all parts of the city carries no consequences.
In these circumstances, the lackadaisical attitude towards relentless demands to alter the status quo on the Temple Mount — emanating not only from messianic fringes, but also from within the ruling coalition — has been especially incomprehensible. Previous provocations of this sort (notably the late Ariel Sharon’s demonstrative visit to the Temple Mount in October 2000) led to particularly vicious rounds of violence. Today, heaping additional religious fuel on already smoldering nationalist fires cannot but have a broad incendiary effect. But Prime Minister Netanyahu has only (and still rather half-heartedly) begun to call for a return to the status quo in this holiest of places for Jews and Muslims after terrorism has laid claim to several lives (the latest act just hours after police attempted to enter the Al-Aqsa mosque), the peace treaty with Jordan was threatened, and violence began spinning almost completely out of hand.
If recent Israeli policies have been counterproductive (if not downright harmful), responses to rising Palestinian violence have proven exceedingly ineffective. Based on the premise that any resistance must be quelled by force, the Israeli government — at the incessant urging of Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat — has poured thousands of policemen into the city, authorized massive roundups of youthful rioters, increased punitive measures against rock-throwers and their families, and embarked on a collective clampdown on Palestinian Jerusalemites. These iron-fist policies have exacerbated strife and further underlined the enormous limitations on the use of force as a means of restoring a semblance of order in this troubled city.
What, then, can explain the ongoing use of what are obviously unsuccessful — if not patently inflammatory — measures? The first, and most immediate, set of reasons is political. Faced with sliding levels of public support and growing insurrection from elements within his own party, the Prime Minister has been tempted to court his own right-wing in order to secure his base in what is fast emerging as an election year. Indeed, he may be increasingly convinced that a firm stance on Jerusalem can bolster his slipping image as “Mr. Security” and allow him to recover his position as leader of the nationalist camp. By distracting attention from the failures of his government both domestically and externally, and by capitalizing on yet another opportunity to delegitimize the Palestinian leadership (especially Mahmoud Abbas) as a negotiating partner, the renewed emphasis on the centrality of Jerusalem for Jews may offer a lifeboat for what might be a sinking Netanyahu ship.
But such an instrumental (and cynically self-serving) explanation, however superficially compelling, can only go so far in accounting for current policies, given the fact that the any further deterioration in Jerusalem — with all its spillover effects into the West Bank and during the last few days also inside Israel — may severely compromise vital Israeli interests.
A second set of reasons for the present government’s contentious policies in Jerusalem therefore goes deeper, revolving around its insistence that Israel — and only Israel — can determine its own destiny. Asserting on the ground what it perceives to be Israel’s exclusive claim to sovereignty over the city, despite increased condemnation from the international community, serves to derive from a profound belief in the veracity of the adage that “it is not important what the goyim say, it is important what we do.” As the Palestinian quest for self-determination gathers traction in the world arena (thus supplying further evidence that “the entire world is against us”), concentrating on Jerusalem provides in the eyes of the ruling coalition a unifying motif which can help withstand (and perhaps even glorify) the country’s growing isolation.
This type of reasoning may assist in understanding why repeated appeals by King Abdullah of Jordan — granted guardianship over the Muslim holy sites in the Israeli Jordanian peace treaty signed twenty years ago — were initially ignored and only addressed after Jordan recalled its ambassador to Israel for consultations. But it cannot go far enough in accounting for the government’s inability to grasp that its overriding presence in Jerusalem is not, by any stretch of the imagination, akin to control over the city.
For that it is necessary to muster a third set of reasons. Behind recent Israeli moves in the city lies a clearly-defined ultra-nationalist mindset predicated on the unwavering belief that Israel has an inalienable right to the land (and especially to Jerusalem). This rights-based frame, drawing on historical and divine sources, is by its very nature ethnocentric and immensely arrogant. It is insensitive to other narratives and incapable of considering Palestinian counter-claims. It provides a rationale for assertive measures regardless of consequences and, by dividing the world into those who are for us and those who are against us, is starkly binary in nature. Above all, this worldview fosters a zero-sum approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict which forecloses any possibility for compromise or pragmatic accommodation.
The cumulative factors at work in propelling Israel’s imprudent policy today do not bode well for the near future. The urgent task of reinstating some calm to the city cannot be achieved by applying more repressive measures while at the same time mouthing half-hearted commitments to reviving the status quo in the Holy Basin. What is needed now, more than ever before, is a return to reason: to an understanding that two peoples inhabit the land of which Jerusalem is the heart and that their destinies are irrevocably intertwined.
The creation of two states for two peoples with Jerusalem as the capital of both remains the sanest alternative available. A growing number of Israelis — including many supporters of the right — are now anxious to go this route. They are clamoring for a government courageous enough to deflect ultra-nationalist pressures and wise enough to make the mind shift necessary to pursue this goal.