by Mario Schejtman
For many years, negotiators and activists have been working to develop a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict believing that Jerusalem and the issues related to it should be left to the end of the peace process. This was due to the sensitive and symbolic value of the city, not only for its residents, but also for millions of believers of the three major monotheistic religions all over the world. The stagnation in the diplomatic negotiations, together with the dramatic increase in the amount of violent incidents in both parts of the city in recent years, has made it necessary to review this belief.
Three Main Israeli Political Approaches to Jerusalem
In the Israeli political realm there are three main paths being promoted about how to deal with Jerusalem. The first, and currently most powerful one, is actually being implemented by the extreme right — settlers guided by religious messianic dogma. They systematically work on what they call the “Judaization” of Jerusalem — referring to the altering of the landscape and public space all over East Jerusalem, including the religious sites of the Holy Esplanade (Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount). They do so by pushing Jewish settlers into every house they manage to grab, by controlling the bureaucratic development processes and even by using ecological and archeological projects to erase any sign of Arab “belonging” to the city, while accentuating Jewish heritage. They are the most powerful actor regarding the city’s future, especially as they have managed to enlist the cooperation of the “center” parties that have fallen into the trap of believing that they are actually “maintaining the status quo” in the city while waiting for the peace process to resume.
One form of opposition to this policy of entrenchment is promoted by national politicians belonging to the “center” parties. Unlike the right, they do acknowledge the existence of the Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem and their national aspirations and they accept the principle of dividing the city so Jerusalem can eventually become the capital of the two states. However, they propose to accomplish this goal by two extremely problematic means. First, they argue for the necessity of physically dividing the city by moving the Separation Wall inside the current municipal boundaries, severing the link between most of Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods and the city. This will not only hurt the city from an aesthetic and functional perspective but will, more importantly, dramatically worsen the humanitarian situation of Jerusalem’s Palestinian population. Second, they have unilaterally decided that the Old City, the Holy Esplanade and the adjacent Palestinian neighborhoods would remain under absolute Israeli control, blatantly ignoring the rights and feelings of the residents and the religious sensitivities of Muslims and Christians around the world. To gain public support among Israeli voters, these “center” parties use the same rhetoric of demonization and dissemination of stereotypes as the right-wing politicians.
For us at Meretz — which is currently serving as the only opposition to the mayor’s coalition in the Jerusalem Municipal Council — as for many nonpolitically active Jewish residents of the city, these positions are unacceptable in moral as well as in practical terms. We still firmly believe that an agreedupon solution for the issue of Jerusalem should be reached as part of a diplomatic arrangement in which the State of Palestine is established alongside the State of Israel. The two states will then embody the implementation of both nations’ right to self-determination.
As part of such an agreement, the sovereignty over the city must be divided according to former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s parameters, so both capital cities can function in Jerusalem. However, Jerusalem is, and should continue to be, a shared city with a unified urban space, so that all its residents will maintain their linkages to the city. This is the only way in which the division would allow the Palestinians to live their lives in dignity and security, ending long years of Israeli occupation and transforming politically related violence into a redundant bad memory.
Do the Right, the Humanitarian, Thing
Until the accomplishment of such an agreement and in order to facilitate its implementation, Israel should take its responsibilities as occupying force, as stated by international law, much more seriously. The Israeli authorities, both at the governmental and the municipal level, stop all forms of discrimination, invest in the welfare of the people under its control, desist from creating settlements and transferring Israeli population to the other side of the Green Line, and so on. All this must be done, and we as Meretz strive constantly to achieve this, not only because it is demanded by the international law. All this needs to be done because it is the right thing, the humanitarian thing, to do.
So until the day comes, hopefully soon, when effective diplomatic negotiations are resumed (and finalized), we at Meretz–Jerusalem are doing our best to achieve these goals. We work for them on the ground, from the bottom-up, supporting the individuals, the groups and committees who constantly attempt to make the authorities respect the human rights and dignity of all. We also work on the political level of the municipality, either by joining the local coalition or by struggling against it and against the mayor when, like now, the administration consciously implements destructive policies.
Practical Proposals to Improve the Situation
In practical terms our platform includes the following policies that need to be implemented immediately:
1) Substantially increase the budget share of the municipality to be directed to East Jerusalem. Palestinian residents comprise almost 40% of the city’s population, yet the investment of public budget in East Jerusalem barely rises above a 10% threshold. An increase in investment can help to close the huge infrastructural gap (both physical and social) that has been deliberately widened since 1967 as part of the policy of making life unbearable for Palestinians in Jerusalem;
2) Recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinian presence in the city. Completely and unequivocally stop the policies and practices aiming at expelling Palestinians from Jerusalem, either by revoking their residency status, denying permits for urban development and destroying the structures built despite the refuse of permits, artificially inflating Arnona debts, and so on and so forth;
3) Stop the harassment and persecution of all Palestinian leadership in the city — political, religious and community leadership. Jerusalemite Palestinians have the right to organize themselves, to represent their own people and to work towards improving their livelihood. It is not up to Israel, its security forces or its municipal administration to decide who speaks on behalf of Palestinian Jerusalemites;
4) Completely cease the policy of seizing houses in East Jerusalem neighborhoods and establishing new settlements there. Such settlement efforts are aimed at radically transforming the Palestinian character of the neighborhoods and making it impossible to reach any diplomatic solution on the division of the city according to the Clinton parameters.
5) Fully respect the Holy Places for all religions in the city, especially the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Return to the status quo in which had existed until the year 2000 and the roles of the Waqf, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and all other partners in maintaining the balance in such a sensitive place.
6) Oppose all and any unilateral initiatives to create facts on the ground that will negatively affect the future of Jerusalem and all its residents. Such initiatives — be they construction plans or transport infrastructures — are clear examples of institutional violence that creates in turn violent reactions that are used then as excuses for increasing the repression against the population.
We are committed to achieving these goals and we are aware that doing so will require both sides to deal with painful and complex issues. We have already begun a mutually challenging deliberation process between us and some of the Jerusalemite Palestinian leaders. But real transformation will not be realized without radically changing the power relations, and especially the current abuse of power; otherwise, Jerusalem will continue to be a failed city instead of the vibrant, multicultural and multifaceted urban metropolis it should be.
The Choice before Us
Although, as mentioned, there are three distinctive political paths towards the future of the city, the fundamental choice before us is clear. We either continue with the various attempts to unilaterally impose one-sided, Israeli interests as both the right-wing and the center propose despite the apparent contradiction in their programs, or, we build a city in which all citizens live in equality, in welfare, in freedom and in security — not just a fake “coexistence” but a real joint existence of two peoples that love the city and are not going anywhere else.