Naomi Chazan
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Is it time to divide Jerusalem?

Surprising new talk of reconfiguring the capital city may finally show a way out of the current intolerable reality

Jerusalem, the city that embodies the many complex facets — both terrestrial and celestial — of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has, for close to half a century, symbolized its seeming intractability. From an official Israeli perspective, the notion of a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty is untouchable; from a Palestinian vantage point, the idea of self-determination without Jerusalem at its center is inconceivable. With no accommodation in sight, Israeli control over the sprawling and diverse metropolis — substantially expanded in 1967 and subsequently annexed — has deepened over the years. Yet today there is more serious talk about changes in Jerusalem than perhaps anywhere else. What was always considered to be the last item on the agenda is now being brought forward, anticipating, rather than foreclosing, a renewed attempt to achieve a Palestinian-Israeli accord.

Jerusalem has always served as a microcosm of the conflict. On a daily basis, it provides the most tangible evidence of the widening contradiction between the claim to unity and the reality of separation. It is the largest and most diverse city in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, bringing together more than 300,000 Palestinian residents and 550,000 Jewish citizens (one-third of them ultra-Orthodox), dispersed in distinct enclaves linked by precious few common spaces. With the notable exception of hospitals and shopping malls, the amount of contact between its heterogeneous inhabitants has diminished drastically in recent years. The differences between east and west are legion: they are visible in the discrepancies in infrastructure, construction, transportation, public services, economic opportunities, accessibility and education, as well as cultural traditions, social norms and political rights. This multi-cultural city is more divided than ever before. Absent is that pluralism which is the mainstay of livable diversity.

Trends in Jerusalem not only reflect the deep inequalities between Israelis and Palestinians over the years (and within each of these communities), they also anticipate future patterns. The one-state reality under Israeli domination that exists in the city (and supports institutionalized discrimination within its confines) is inherently inflammable. Religious strife — especially apparent in the combustible environment of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif — persists. The “individual intifada,” dating back to last summer, is a Jerusalem construct. Ethno-religious violence has become commonplace on its streets and in its alleys. The grandeur of the city and its promise of universal peace are marred by its prevailing unease, its deterioration into virulent intolerance and its ongoing shabbiness. Recurrent declarations notwithstanding, there is a growing realization across the political spectrum that the current situation is unsustainable (and, fundamentally, undesirable).

This is the backdrop for the current revival of the conversation on alternatives for Jerusalem. In broad strokes, it is possible to discern three different approaches to the Jerusalem puzzle, none of which are confined to any particular political camp or persuasion: uniting, dividing and sharing the city. The Israeli unifiers, best represented by the Netanyahu government, while continuing to adhere to the mantra of Jerusalem as a united city and the eternal capital of Israel, nevertheless understand that in order to maintain control, they must invest in improving the lot of disadvantaged groups in the city — and especially Palestinians. As Mayor Nir Barkat wrote just this past weekend in The Jerusalem Post, “We are working in close cooperation with leaders from all sectors of the city to bridge gaps, expand municipal services and invest in infrastructure to make Jerusalem attractive and competitive for our residents, our business sector and visitors from all over the world.” Alongside the Jewish advocates of unification stand Palestinian proponents, who insist that the city be transferred in its entirety to their tutelage, echoing the promise of openness and freedom promoted by their Israeli counterparts (such are the claims made by the Hamas leadership). These are the confusing contemporary variants of the unification approach rooted in the idea of internationalizing Jerusalem that is embedded in the United Nations partition resolution of 1947.

The appeal of unification has, indeed, dimmed over time, as unity has become synonymous with nationalist hegemony. Even Barkat, in a (disavowed) slip of the tongue several weeks ago, diverged from his stated vision (“A united Jerusalem is the only viable option for a vibrant and thriving Jerusalem”) and opened the door for the redrawing of the municipal map. For one moment, he joined a growing number of proponents of the division of the city — all of whom admit that immense efforts to create an overwhelming Jewish majority in the city since 1967 have failed, giving way to an increasingly binational reality.

This conversation was spearheaded by Haim Ramon at the helm of an initiative carrying the telling name, “The Movement to Save Jewish Jerusalem.” In what is essentially a unilateral plan, this group calls for excluding most of the Arab villages and neighborhoods annexed to Jerusalem from its municipal area and creating a physical barrier to formalize the new frontier. Israel would maintain full sovereignty over the redrawn city, which would incorporate 100,000 Palestinian residents (and render the remaining 200,000 outside its domain). Aside from a handful of Labor party members, the specifics of this plan have been roundly rejected — although the basic concept of separation has not.

Many on the right concede that some territorial downsizing is necessary, but differ from Ramon and his cohorts about where the line is drawn. Yoaz Hendel, erstwhile Director of Communications for Prime Minister Netanyahu, wants to trim off the eastern neighborhoods of the city. “We are lying to ourselves when we talk about united Jerusalem.” He sees five enclaves between the current security wall and the city boundaries that should be detached from the city. The remaining Palestinian residents (about 200,000) should be offered Israeli citizenship, much like Israeli Arabs. In his mind, “after half a century, it’s time to make a decision”.

On the left, too, there are many who call for dividing the city. But they insist that such a separation be complete and proportional (Jewish areas to Israel, Palestinian sectors to an independent Palestine). This kind of division would involve both land and people, mirroring the separation that prevails de facto on the ground today. These dividers — who include the Palestinian Authority, leading Palestinians and Israeli Jerusalem activists, as well as the drafters of the Geneva accord — are insistent that such recognition of the separation on the ground is the best way to achieve justice in the long-run for all Jerusalemites.

Those (of whatever political ilk) who talk about dividing the city in order to promote their particular agenda choose to disregard the practicalities involved in such a separation. That is why the details of these proposals underline the legal, human, political, religious, economic and social anomalies intrinsic to this approach. It is also the reason that many seeking a pragmatically workable and morally viable strategy for the future of Jerusalem have been examining various ways to share the city as an open urban space that houses the capitals of two states.

Proponents of sharing Jerusalem have in common a belief that the city, however indivisible in reality, must articulate both the varied national, religious, ethnic and political aspirations of its main components, as well as their administrative and socioeconomic interdependence. Various formulae for an open city that protects diverse sovereignties include proposals ranging from urban confederation (two municipalities under a common umbrella) to a divided sovereignty over people and joint sovereignty over territory to various arrangements for respecting the autonomy of enclaves and the creation of shared spaces (backed by numerous grassroots efforts seeking to bridge national and sectarian schisms). Drawing heavily on the intriguing precedents of Brussels and Belfast, teams seeking practical ways to share the city and develop it into a truly free and tolerant pluralistic entity have drawn up plans that, with all the complications involved, may provide feasible, equitable and morally supportable alternatives.

This week marks the beginning of the 50th year of the war that essentially changed Israeli-Palestinian relations, without resolving any of the root causes of the century-old conflict. The reopening of the debate on alternatives for Jerusalem suggests that, beneath the surface of prejudice, acrimony and abject poverty, steps are being taken to address key issues in innovative ways. These initiatives, along with the revival of international interest and involvement in the resolution of the conflict, may yet yield a way out of what has become an intolerable and unacceptable reality with Jerusalem at its core.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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