MADRID – Back in 1996, Binyamin Netanyahu won a general election by mobilizing large constituencies against then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres’s alleged intention to “divide Jerusalem.” Nearly two decades later, Netanyahu remains committed to old, vacuous slogans about a “united Jerusalem” – a conviction that could, yet again, unravel the Israel-Palestine peace process.
As US Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to present a framework agreement for a conclusive round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, Netanyahu’s hardline position on Jerusalem is simply a non-starter. In a last-ditch effort to improve the proposal’s chances of success, US President Barack Obama – who has largely avoided taking a proactive role in the peace process during his second term – met with Netanyahu at the White House to urge him to moderate his position.
But changing Netanyahu’s mind will not be easy – not least because of the domestic political pressure that he faces. Since Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, the country’s political class has championed the city as Israel’s “united eternal capital” – a vision that they remain unwilling to abandon.
The problem is that no serious negotiation with the Palestinians could accommodate this position. Jerusalem’s Arab population – which already accounts for more than 40% of the total – is growing by 3.5% annually, compared to 1.5% among Israelis. Once this sizeable swath of voters begins participating in municipal elections – which they have so far avoided, lest they be viewed as legitimizing Israeli rule – control of the city council is likely to pass to a Palestinian majority.
Peres understood that a Jerusalem united under exclusively Israeli rule was not feasible, assuring Norway’s foreign minister in a 1993 letter – critical to the conclusion of the Oslo accords – that Israel would respect the autonomy of Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem. Likewise, in 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak endorsed the Clinton Parameters, which called for Jerusalem’s division into two capitals along ethnic lines. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert followed suit in his 2008 peace proposal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; he also recommended internationalizing the Old City’s administration.
Yet Netanyahu and his supporters remain adamant that Jerusalem will not be split. What they fail to grasp is that the 1980 Jerusalem Law, which declared the city – “united in its entirety” – to be Israel’s capital did not actually result in unity. The subsequent effort to “Israelize” the city, by building a network of Jewish neighborhoods in Palestinian-dominated East Jerusalem, has failed to secure a solid Jewish majority, largely owing to the unwillingness of middle-class Israelis to settle there.
Indeed, not only has the settlement project turned East Jerusalem into a hub of political and social tension, but the high financial cost – more than $20 billion in total – forced the diversion of limited resources from growth-oriented investment in West Jerusalem. As a result, Jerusalem has become Israel’s poorest city. Unsurprisingly, the 200,000 members of Israel’s liberal and prosperous middle class that abandoned the city in the last 20 years find Tel Aviv – Israel’s economic capital, and a center of technology-driven growth – far more appealing.
Complicating the situation further is the division between secular Israelis and the fanatic Orthodox communities whose rejection of the secular state and yearning for a society based on the strictest interpretation of Halacha (Jewish religious law) epitomize a deep-seated fear of Arabs and an uncompromising distrust of gentiles. Such communities, which comprise 30% of Jerusalem’s population, make the notion of a united, peaceful Jerusalem farfetched, at best.
In 1966, a year before Israeli paratroopers ostensibly united Jerusalem, the composer Naomi Shemer sang of, “the city that sits solitary, and in its heart a wall.” Today, the wall dividing Jerusalem is not made of concrete or brick – but that does not make it any less real.
This enduring division is exemplified in the contrast between municipal services and infrastructure in the city’s Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. Of course, to some degree, Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents benefit from Israel’s advanced social-security and health-care systems, the likes of which their brethren in the Palestinian Authority can only imagine. Nonetheless, they continue to identify themselves as Palestinian, with only 10,000 of Jerusalem’s 300,000 Palestinian residents having agreed to apply for Israeli citizenship.
But the Jerusalem issue is subject to an even more fundamental confusion: What are Jerusalem’s actual boundaries? In the cavalier spirit that prevailed after 1967, the Israeli government extended the city’s boundaries from 10,875 acres to more than 31,000 acres. Netanyahu’s claim that this extended Jerusalem is the biblical capital of the Jewish people is a historical travesty.
A Jerusalem controlled by non-productive Orthodox Jewish communities and disenfranchised Palestinians is destined for economic and political collapse. Kerry’s plan to divide the city along ethnic lines amounts to Israel’s last chance to avoid such an outcome and legitimize the city as its internationally recognized capital.
By agreeing to a divided Jerusalem, Netanyahu would be initiating the long-overdue departure from the hubris and megalomania that has brought the city to its current state of stagnation and isolation. Giving up on a “united” Jerusalem is the only way to secure the city’s “eternal” status.