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.