PIJ: Let's begin by going back to June 1967. Where were you? How did you feel? How did you react?

Meron Benvenisti: What happened in the war, at that time and even today, after 40 years, I believe, was a formative historical event. I would say that it's more important than Independence Day. For Israelis who, at that time, stood before the Wall, the Western Wall, it was earth-shattering, especially for those who came with their parents, like me, who felt that we were joining hands with our ancestors. It was a very important day, and not only for religious people, but also for atheists like myself. That is why I refuse to accept the simplistic left-wing approach that this was just the occupation and domination of the other. Yes, there is a very important element of that, but that makes it even more tragic, because I do not accept that this was just an act of unjustified violence. I believe that the connection with the Western Wall, the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem is significant. The fact that it created so much misery and other problems for the occupied Palestinians does not negate that formative event.

Did you also have childhood memories of having visited the Wall before '48?

Absolutely. I remember on the last day the Jews could go to the Western Wall, on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1947, we blew the shofar, sang "Hatikva" and suffered the violence of the British police there. So for me, especially because of my family's connection and my father's role as an educator, I was open to such things and absorbed them. The fact that all these sentiments have been "usurped" by right-wing Israelis doesn't make them less important for me and for my identity. I understand, agree and feel the pain and the cognitive dissonance, but one should not just write it off as if it didn't exist. There is this element that people must understand. If they don't, if because of conflicting ideologies they are ready to discard it, the Israeli community is losing something that should be cherished.

Let us go back to June 1967. There you were, sitting in the municipal discussions. How did Teddy Kollek react?

Teddy Kollek found me in the street one day during the war, after I visited the Western Wall -

You went there soon after it was accessible?

I went first with my army unit, and afterwards I brought my father, and then one or two days later, Kollek met me in the street and said, "I need you to come and to help me organize things." So the first few months or weeks, I don't think I had a specific job. And then he created a job called "in charge of East Jerusalem," and I became the coordinator of all the municipal departments that dealt with East Jerusalem, and also represented the municipality in general discussions with government agencies and ministries that had to deal with the operation or the act of unification that took place at the end of the month.

How do you view the policy - given that you were one of its architects, and served as deputy mayor from 1971?

First I was a bureaucrat. What did I think about the policy? I think it was inevitable. It was impossible to think of keeping East Jerusalem occupied, keeping it as part of the West Bank, not improving the conditions, creating a fence between the two parts of the city, which is what people are accusing us of: annexation. There was no other way except to reunite the city. Physically, there was no possibility; you couldn't keep the area without electricity, without water, without sewage, unemployed. And I think that this was in the interest of the Palestinians as well.
Yes, it was and is held together by force, and the Israelis have created that fiction called "unification of Jerusalem," which meant annexation. It wasn't just annexation of land without people. We insisted on giving them at least partial rights. I don't think that they wanted to become Israeli citizens; to impose citizenship on them would have been a disaster because what they needed at that time were passports to go to Jordan. So we created the system of residency, without full citizenship.
The important element we imposed was a decision to equalize services -the basic benefits of a welfare society, which are social security, health and free movement, with cars. It was important to be able to work everywhere - to equalize that aspect of life that still exists today, and they don't want to lose it. Because now when you think about the partitioning of Jerusalem, that they will become part of the Palestinian state - you ask a Palestinian; he's against it. Why - because he will lose all of that. Those on the left who advocate it don't know what they are saying, because it means that they're ready to take people who are used to living in that environment with welfare and the benefits of being Israeli citizens or part-citizens and take it away from them. This is my contribution: I confronted the government with one demand: Don't annex land without the people. And when you annex the people, it means giving them equal rights as residents of the city.

However, that may have been the policy, that may have been how it was described, but in actuality there is a tremendous disparity.

Absolutely. There is tremendous disparity; there is no question about it.

So what went wrong?

What went wrong is that on a day-to-day basis, the municipality did not invest enough in East Jerusalem. The calculation is about 5-10%, compared to 90% on the Jewish side. They are one-third, and only receive 10%. It's not that we should distribute it 50-50; Jews are still the majority. Nevertheless, there is the element of inequality. I'm talking about basic conditions of life. Don't forget that maintaining services in East Jerusalem - social security and national insurance and so on and so forth - costs Israel a quarter of a billion dollars a year, about $1,000 per capita.
I am only saying that if I want to justify my role in the annexation of Jerusalem, what I did was to mitigate this, to create some benefits that allowed the Palestinians - and this is for me the main test - to thrive in the city. You can't separate occupation and what happened during the occupation, the hardships and the inequality from the tremendous growth of the Palestinian community. And if you take even the most obvious aspect of Israeli domination, which is land and the building of neighborhoods, even here, what the Palestinians have done is to build 6,000 or 7,000 houses in East Jerusalem, privately, with some help. This in itself made the Jerusalem question unresolved. The Palestinians are very proud of this. Despite all the Israeli attempts to consolidate and win that battle over Jerusalem, they didn't.

One thing that you haven't related to yet is the fact that the Palestinian Jerusalemites want to feel that they are part of the Palestinian nation and Jerusalem has always been a center for many of the adjacent West Bank towns. It's not only that they are gaining benefits, they also want that attachment.

Absolutely. What I'm trying to do is make the picture less clear-cut - East/West Jerusalem, areas occupied/unoccupied, and so on. Yes, the Israeli government attempted to isolate Jerusalem from the hinterland, and the best example is the wall. It's a sign of despair. The wall is a monument to the demise of our original beliefs: We believed in destroying the barriers in the city.

You believed that the wall between East and West, the Mandelbaum Gate, etc., should be taken down.

Not only that, but also that Jerusalem was a dead end in Israel, and in a way, also a dead end in Palestine, because of the policies of the Jordanian government. So both sides during the 19 years of partition were dead ends. We sought to restore Jerusalem to being the central city of Arab Palestine and integrate Jerusalem into the surrounding area. From the mid-'90s and the beginning of the 21st century, this dream faded. Israelis stopped believing it. They withdrew behind the wall, with most of the Palestinian areas outside it. Thus, the vision of Jerusalem being an urban center for a vast area of more than 1 million Palestinians ended for the foreseeable future.

This ended. Meanwhile, temporarily -

Temporarily - but there is nothing permanent as temporary. Processes that were set in motion by the wall have an immediate effect and slowly create new facts, like what happened in Ramallah. Jerusalem as an urban center died, and Bethlehem died because it became an enclave, but Ramallah is thriving.

But the Berlin Wall came down. Why can't the Jerusalem Wall come down?

Yes, it can. I am only saying that, meanwhile, it has a tremendous effect and a bad effect. What will happen is that we will have created pre-'67 conditions, except we've moved the boundary about a mile east, and changed the ethnic composition which unlike before 1967 include now Jews and Arabs, but it's the same effect of creating a corridor and turning Jerusalem into a dead end and severing it from the hinterland. Until the first intifada, we had this dream. Even if Jerusalem was a city held together by force, at least there was no wall, except a geographical, psychological wall, what I call "the geography of fear."

Although there was much less fear than there is today.

The fact that there was no boundary had an element of hope that this was temporary and it could change - because you don't hold together a city by force forever. But once you have a wall and you create processes that contribute to separation and the creation of different urban and psychological and political conditions, it's something else. So the wall is a sign of despair, a sign of accepting that Jerusalem probably cannot be united. And that negates the hopes of 40 years ago and contributes to the notion that Arabs and Jews cannot live together.
Yes, "separation" is a great slogan, seems a great message. Not to me. I think that there is something in Jerusalem that is more than the sum total of its different parts, and this is something that people now refuse to see. In the Geneva Initiative, they go into details such as give the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to the Arabs because it's not Jewish. I cherish the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as part of my culture. It's the same with the Church of the Nativity. I don't want to live in a Jewish ghetto. I was born and raised in a city that is multicultural.

Now you've touched on something - multicultural and multi-religious. Do you think there should be a role for the three religions?

Yes, there should be a role, and that role should not be defined by lawyers.

What should be the relationship of Islam and Judaism and Christianity to their holy places? Who determines this? You say not lawyers, so who?

The status quo with gradual improvements. The status quo is the accumulation of the wisdom of the people who have to deal with daily problems, and who, by dealing with them sensibly, created the existing - code in the Temple Mount. The Jews are below, and the Arabs are above. And that cannot be changed. The Jews can re-create a quasi-Temple Mount, a substitute Temple Mount, as they have done at the Western Wall. On the borderline, there will be always people who try to incite, but basically, the status quo can hold.

Don't you think it might have been simpler if the original UN partition plan with the idea of an international city had been realized, and would have neutralized all of the problems that we are seeing?

Yes, if I were to be unrealistic. In a condition that is a clash of nationalisms, you cannot impose from the outside, without the use of force, the notion of multiculturalism. The obvious solution is partition. But this doesn't work in Jerusalem.

Professor Sergio de la Pergola has suggested the Old City should be a separate entity, along the lines of the Vatican.

I don't believe in this idea of a separate Holy Basin. It is based on the fact that behind the enormous disparity in power, we'll build a situation in which the Israelis will create an island of equality that they can eliminate at will. Indeed, there are endless games of sovereignty, of solutions. There are more than 200 plans for the solution of Jerusalem. But all plans are the same, except for nuances. Everyone has his own symposium and have his own dialogue about how to solve the problem of Jerusalem, and the problems remain unresolved.

Your doctorate was on divided cities - comparing Belfast and Jerusalem. You also refer to the question of binational situations in your new book. Are there any models that you would say are relevant? What about Brussels?

Brussels might be one. I only compared decision-making in a polarized city: How to deal with the terrorists in your own hospital; to allow or not to allow a separate blood bank. These are the issues, the dilemmas of bureaucrats and officials. You have to oscillate every morning between three different role orientations: one, to be partisan to your cause; two, to be a social engineer; and three, to be a mediator. What people are doing now is something else. They take an example from Montreal, Belfast or other divided cities and try to copy them. It won't work. But if it were to work, it will work for other reasons, like in Belfast. It's a miracle that Ian Paisley, who was elected because the Protestant public wanted the extremist who would not give in, is the one who signed the recent agreement.

Can you picture ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski having a dialogue with the four Hamas people elected to represent Jerusalem in the Palestinian Legislative Council?

Eventually it will have to be that way, because these are the only people who will remain in the city. The bigots, on both sides, will win. Mr. Lupolianski and the group that he represents will be the only ones who will have to deal with Hamas people and what they represent.

Twenty years ago I interviewed Faisal Husseini, and he said we the moderates, the realists, the pragmatists on both sides, have to save the city together. To what degree did the policymaking that you and Teddy Kollek carried out involve a dialogue with Jerusalem Palestinians?

We had dialogues all the time. It mostly emerged out of necessity. We didn't do it because of ideological reasons like yourself, or the Palestine-Israel Journal, who do it out of ideological motivation. We did it because we had to.

Out of practicality.

Yes. Once you accept that there is another community, you have to talk to its leadership. So we did. Teddy Kollek went and smoked a narghila at the café at Damascus Gate; he believed that it was important for people to see him. I did it simply out of necessity. The Palestinians refused to be represented by the municipality, so we had to find out what their needs were. When the former Mayor of Jerusalem Rauhi al-Khatib came back from exile, I came to see him, and then I went with Teddy to his funeral. I don't want to be romantic about it, but at that time, we still had hopes that coexistence was possible. Recently, the approach is to "separate" from the Palestinians. I see this as the most tragic consequence of the suicide bombings.

That people withdrew inwards.


How do you see the future of Jerusalem within the context of the overall future of Israeli-Palestinian relations?

I can't tell. First of all, you can't define what are the real borders of Jerusalem. The way we discuss Jerusalem, we discuss half the West Bank. Despite the wall, it encompasses an area from north of Bethlehem to Hebron. It's a vast area in which Palestinians are the majority. The borders of Jerusalem municipality are totally artificial; they were created in order to create the illusion that we are talking about one urban phenomenon, and therefore creating the statistics to support it.

And they were determined unilaterally.

Unilaterally. Absolutely. So when they say "a majority of Palestinians," or "a majority of Jews" in Jerusalem, it's meaningless, because it's a question of how you draw the line. There is no such thing as a solution to Jerusalem without a solution to Palestine.

OK, so let's look at a solution for general conflict.

A Palestine-Israel solution? There is no solution. There is only a set of arrangements. Today it is impossible to surgically partition the land west of the Jordan. That option is over.

But there can be possibilities of a federation or a confederation?

The solution should be based on the creation of "soft boundaries," boundaries that delineate ethnically homogenous areas but leave the border itself not defined surgically, as between two sovereignties. And then Jerusalem would become part of that solution of soft boundaries. Soft boundaries within the city are also possible, are good for both sides. Also, both sides need to huddle together, to have the feeling that they live in a homogenous neighborhood. In Belfast they call it "voluntary apartheid." People need to finds reasons for separateness.

They want to live in their own communities, with their own identities.

Precisely. So this is the paradox: The macro-national aspect can become less acute, but the micro-ethnic aspect can become more pronounced. And you should allow for that. First of all it should be done by people on both sides who understand these things, and who are not chauvinistic and are ready to go with the public and with its needs. And if you have sensible people, you can live very happily. But you can't leave it to lawyers - because lawyers have to define things. The situation is undefinable.

Forty years from now, do you expect that we will be in a better situation?

Maybe in forty years, yes. But not in the near future, because what we have lost, we now have to regain: We need to regain the capacity to live together. We have to be interested in reconstructing the old hopes of the past. Now you can't, because we turn our backs to the other.

And we've also been mutually traumatized.

Exactly. So what I'm saying is : do it gradually. You have to create conditions that allow people to return to the hopes of 40 years ago, the first few days after the occupation. Once you've succeeded in that, to concretize that in specific arrangements is not that difficult.