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
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
Absolutely. There is tremendous disparity; there is no question
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
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
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
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
Yes, there should be a role, and that role should not be defined by
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.