The Myth of United Jerusalem

Israeli policies in its capital city are undermining the possibility of a two-state solution

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The Dome of the Rock Mosque in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound is seen through a fence in Jerusalem's Old City / AP

This article is part of "Is Peace Possible?", a special report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by The Atlantic and The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

9-11 Ten Years LaterThe Jewish attachment to Jerusalem is incontestable. For millennia, Jerusalem has been central to Jewish identity in the Diaspora; since the birth of the state of Israel, the importance of contemporary Jerusalem as Israel's capital has become part of the ethos shared by Israelis and Jews around the world. Jewish attachments to Jerusalem are embodied both in the religious and historic sites in and around the Old City and in the modern Israeli city that has been built beyond its ramparts in the past century.

But this genuine attachment to Jerusalem has given rise to policies that are increasingly unsustainable: settlement policies that aspire to place Jerusalem beyond the realm of political compromise and which embody an exclusionary vision of Jewish Jerusalem, ignoring the complexity of the city and its universal importance. Forty-four years after Israel took control over the entirety of Jerusalem, these policies are both a failure and at odds with Israel's own interests.

Since 1967, when Israel gained control of East Jerusalem and "united" it with West Jerusalem to create its self-proclaimed capital, Israel has tried to control the city's demography. It has accelerated Israeli development while implementing a planning and zoning regime that limits Palestinian construction to a bare minimum. It has also enacted policies that effectively bar Palestinian "immigration" into East Jerusalem while reducing the number of Palestinians counted as residents in the city. But these efforts to cap the Palestinian population in Jerusalem have failed. In 1967, Palestinians represented 25.5 percent of the city's population. Today they are 38 percent, and within decades they will be the majority.

Neither the Palestinians of East Jerusalem nor Israel have ever viewed Palestinian residents of the city as Israeli. Despite the attempts of problematic polls that purport to prove otherwise, Israelis and Palestinians have demonstrated by their actions over the past 43 years that neither endeavors nor aspires to share a political community. While Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have been formally given the right to seek Israeli citizenship (in contrast to the Palestinians that found themselves living inside Israel following Israel's 1948 War of Independence, who automatically became citizens of Israel), less than 5 percent of the population of close to 300,000 have availed themselves of this right. Thus, today almost 40 percent of the population of "united" Jerusalem does not vote in national or municipal elections. In truth, "united" Jerusalem remains a bi-national city.

Today, 44 years after Jerusalem's "unification," Israel still does not provide most normal services or even build sufficient classrooms in much of East Jerusalem. Legal proceedings are currently pending before the Israeli Supreme Court to compel Israel's Postal Authorities to deliver mail in East Jerusalem. This dysfunctional reality is not typically rooted in malice, but rather in the political cultures of Israelis and Palestinians: Israel displays little, if any, interest in genuinely incorporating the Palestinians into Israeli Jerusalem, while the Palestinians determinedly reject the legitimacy of Israeli governance over their lives. In short, Israeli rule in East Jerusalem is a fiction.

Israel's efforts to physically unify the city, mainly through building large Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, have likewise failed. (These neighborhoods, by virtue of being located east of the 1967 lines, are viewed by the international community as settlements whose construction should cease and whose future will have to be determined by Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.) In Jerusalem, a border based on demography already largely exists today. The municipal boundary of Jerusalem, expanded by Israel in 1967 to extend far beyond those areas in which there are Jewish historical and religious attachments, include tens of Palestinian neighborhoods that most Israelis have never heard of. Few Israelis ever venture into areas in East Jerusalem beyond its Old City and Palestinians rarely visit the West. The two peoples lead separate lives, working and shopping in different areas and going to separate schools in which different curricula are taught.

This anomalous situation comes at a price - evident throughout East Jerusalem and increasingly in West Jerusalem, where fictitious rule and real-life neglect have created an impoverished, disgruntled, crime- and strife-ridden city. That cost is also evident in the fact that 44 years after Jerusalem's "unification," not a single country recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital or has its embassy there. No country, not even among Israel's staunchest allies, recognizes the legitimacy of Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem. Doggedly clinging to the mantra of "undivided Jerusalem" has not altered this reality; if anything, it has driven Israel into ever-increasing isolation.

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Daniel Seidemann is an Israeli attorney specializing in Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem, and the founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, a Jerusalem-based NGO that works towards a resolution to the question of Jerusalem consistent with the two-state solution.

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