The Myth of United Jerusalem
Israeli policies in its capital city are undermining the possibility of a two-state solution
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.
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.
Alongside these troubling realities is something even more worrisome: Israeli policies in Jerusalem are threatening the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli settlement activities in East Jerusalem will soon render the geography and demography of the city so balkanized that it will no longer be possible to create a viable Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. This means the end of the two-state solution, since Palestinians will never agree to a solution that does not include a capital in East Jerusalem.
In addition, Israel is today permitting extremist settlers to seize properties in the heart of East Jerusalem based on the argument that these properties belonged to Jews before 1948. In effect, Israel is supporting a Jewish "right of return" to East Jerusalem. In doing so, Israel is not only laying the seeds for permanent and escalating conflict in these areas; it is also re-opening 1948-era grievances, fanning the flames of Palestinian demands for their own right of return to properties inside Israel, thereby further undermining the two-state solution.
Cumulatively, Israeli policies in East Jerusalem today threaten to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a bitter national conflict that can be resolved by means of territorial compromise, into the potential for a bloody, unsolvable religious war. This threat derives from Israel's dogged pursuit of the settlers' vision of an exclusionary Jewish Jerusalem -- displacing Palestinians in targeted areas, politicizing archeology, handing over of the most sensitive cultural, historical, and religious sites to extreme settler organizations, and promoting a narrative that East Jerusalem is exclusively or predominantly Jewish, while marginalizing the other national and religious equities in the city. In the process, Israel is alienating even its staunchest allies and thus undermining its own claims in the city. It is also putting itself on a collision course with the forces of moderation in the Muslim and Christian worlds, who sense, with reason, that their equities are being marginalized in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is fast becoming the arena where religious fundamentalists -- Jewish, Christian, and Muslim; domestic and international -- play out their apocalyptic fantasies.
The genuine Israeli and Jewish interests reside not in an exclusive Israeli hegemony over the city, but in universal recognition of Israeli Jerusalem as Israel's capital and of the deep Jewish attachments to the city. Likewise, arriving at an end-of-claims agreement with the Palestinians, something that cannot be done without a compromise on Jerusalem, is an existential Israeli imperative. And all of these can only be achieved by means of a political division of the city, a position that has been embraced by all those who have engaged seriously in permanent status negotiations, including two Israeli prime ministers.
The contours of such an agreement are clear: Jewish Jerusalem becomes the capital of Israel, Palestinian Jerusalem becomes the capital of Palestine, virtually all the Israeli settlement neighborhoods in East Jerusalem are incorporated into Israel as part of a land swap, and special arrangements are put in place in and around the Old City, guaranteeing access to and protection of its religious and holy sites. (For more on the possible contours of Jerusalem in a final-status agreement, see the Jerusalem chapter of "Is Peace Possible?" on The Atlantic.) Israel would gain far more than it would stand to lose in such an agreement.
Today, Israel must choose between two visions of Jerusalem. On the one hand, it can continue pursuing an exclusive, largely fictitious rule over an already divided, bi-national city -- exposing Israel to virtually universal censure and imperiling the two-state solution. On the other hand, it can pursue policies that can make Israeli Jerusalem, Yerushalayim, a thriving national capital, recognized by all, existing side-by-side with but politically divided from the Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, al Quds. To those who cherish Israel and understand what is truly at stake, the choice is clear.