The good and bad news about Israel’s ‘Peace Index’: Three options for Jerusalem

The good news is that according to the latest "Peace Index," produced by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, some 64 percent of the citizens of Israel believe we have succeeded in preserving a democratic regime in this country. The bad news is that we arrive at such a result only by ignoring the Arabs in general and the Jerusalemite Palestinians in particular.

Israel annexed the territory of East Jerusalem, but not the Palestinians who were born there and who live there. It granted full "citizenship" to the territory when it applied its law, court system and administration there, and it anchored this status in Basic Laws that make it difficult for any government to give up any part of East Jerusalem. But it did not automatically grant Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians who live there. Up until the early 2000s, they could apply for citizen's status - though few did - but since Israel amended its citizenship law, it's almost impossible for them to attain it.

These Palestinian Jerusalemites are not immigrants who came to Israel from elsewhere, but rather people who were born in the city, which is the center of their lives. A third of the people of Jerusalem are thus citizens of no state. They are living in a country that sees the territory as its own but does not see its inhabitants as part of the state. From Israel's perspective, they are present in their birthplace by permission, but not by right.

Jerusalem Palestinians vote in the Palestinian Authority, which is prohibited from operating in East Jerusalem. They do not pay taxes to the PA, nor do they benefit from its services. Their right to vote is virtual, because that vote carries no weight in Jerusalem, where they live. But should they desire to obtain Israeli citizenship, their way is almost completely blocked because the government is worried by the demographic implications this would have for the country being a Jewish state and Jerusalem being its capital.

Indeed, Palestinian inhabitants of Jerusalem do have the right to vote in the municipal elections. They say they do not exercise this right because they do not want to affirm by their vote the annexation of the territory, and also because they do not believe that by voting they would be able to change their bitter fate and reduce significantly the systematic discrimination against them in every area of life.

There is quite a lot of justice in this stance, since the way Jerusalem looks is shaped not by the municipality but rather by the government by means of a ministerial committee on Jerusalem affairs, development authorities directly subordinate to the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of the Interior. Without the possibility of voting in the national elections and of political representation on the national level, Jerusalem's Palestinians have next to no power to exert influence on their everyday life.

Had this situation been temporary, lasting for only a few years, it might have been possible to live with such an arrangement. But this bleak reality of the violation of basic human rights has gone on for many years. Looking back, we must admit: This is not a temporary situation, it is permanent. And no change is visible on the horizon.

This reality has harsh implications for the character of Israel as a democratic country and for Jerusalem as its capital. The state does not grant, nor does it want to grant, civil rights to approximately 300,000 Arab residents, about one-fifth of all the Arabs in Israel. A Jerusalem that is not a city of all peoples, a city of all its inhabitants, is not democratic. And if Jerusalem is not democratic - democracy in Israel is severely damaged.

If Israel wants to prevent the degeneration of its democratic character and to strengthen Jerusalem, it faces three options. The first is to allow every Palestinian inhabitant of Jerusalem who is interested, to receive full Israeli citizenship, unconditionally. The second is to enable the PA to operate in East Jerusalem and see to the day-to-day needs of this population. In such a framework these Palestinians would be able to establish municipal and community institutions of their own that would work for their benefit. Israel could propose this even without negotiations on a permanent-status agreement.

The third and final possibility is to accept the principle suggested by President Bill Clinton in 2000: dividing the city between areas most of whose residents are Jewish and those that are mostly Palestinian, and establishing a plan and a short timetable to implement arrangements that would lead to the realization of this principle with or without relation to a comprehensive settlement.

To date, however, Israel has chosen another alternative, the worst of all. Acceptance of an undemocratic and unjust reality in Jerusalem that directly harms its Palestinian inhabitants will ultimately prove harmful to all the people of the city and of the entire country.

This article was originally published in Haaretz on May 25th under the title “The good and bad news about Israel’s Peace Index”.