The ideal of a united, indivisible Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel is one I've held, like most mainstream Jews, for as long as I can remember. The patent righteousness of this position was so clear to me that if someone suggested otherwise, my instinctive reaction was disdain -- which I barely bothered to conceal. Compromise was possible on Hebron. It was possible on the Golan Heights, if it meant real peace with Syria. It might even be possible -- someday, at least -- on the Palestinian-refugee question. But Jerusalem was not something to be bartered. As one Israeli said to me: "Everything else is just business. It's a negotiation. I'll give you a little here, you give me something there. But the city, well, the city's something else entirely."
Yet there I was, standing on Eliahu Meridor Street in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev on a beautiful, chilly morning eight weeks ago, when I realized that my certainty about the city was eroding. I was with Shalom Goldstein, the mayor's special adviser on East Jerusalem, a passionate advocate of keeping the city united under complete Israeli control. Ariel Sharon had just been elected prime minister, and his overwhelming victory seemed to secure the city's inviolable status. Time and again, Sharon has said that he will not give up any part of the city and that only when Yasser Arafat relinquishes all Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, including the holy sites, will he know Arafat is serious about peace.
Goldstein wanted me to see a city, East and West, that had become inseparable. He pointed out the various Palestinian towns on the hillsides surrounding Pisgat Ze'ev and talked about proximity, how closely packed in the Israelis and Palestinians are.
But what I saw from this neighborhood on the northeastern edge of the city, with its new houses still under construction, began to seem like a chasm. Shu'afat, a refugee camp built in the fifties and now home to 12,000 Palestinians, is on the facing hillside less than 100 meters away. Though no one is living in tents and there is no barbed wire, 30 percent of the residents are still officially classified as refugees. I watched several young mothers push strollers down the block in Pisgat Ze'ev against the backdrop of Shu'afat's Third World poverty across the way. A dense cluster of ramshackle houses made of corrugated metal and dark gray cement on one side and bright houses of golden Jerusalem stone on the other.
Goldstein was talking about the city's fragile balance, and why dividing Jerusalem would be a practical, political, and administrative nightmare. "It would be," he said, "like one car with two drivers, each wanting to go in a different direction."
"The kind of educated, successful, creative people the city needs have all left. I'm staying because I love Jerusalem. But I am in the minority."
But instead of seeing one city, for the first time I was seeing two. Separate and distinct. Israeli and Palestinian. Jewish and Muslim. And for the first time, I began to wonder if there wasn't a kind of solipsism in the vision of a united Jerusalem, shared so axiomatically by Jews everywhere. Could the future of Jerusalem lead in a different, more complicated direction? Should it?
There is a classic photo that hangs in houses and shops and restaurants all over Israel, of the three legendary officers -- Uzi Narkiss, Moshe Dayan, and Yitzhak Rabin -- striding triumphantly through the Lion's Gate into the Old City after capturing East Jerusalem in the 1967 War. The photo has a great deal of meaning for Israelis on many levels, but perhaps its most significant symbolism is that after 2,000 years of suffering, of yearning, Jerusalem had, at long last, again become the united capital of Israel.
And it is the realization of this 2,000-year-old dream, a dream that carried Jews through the worst of times, that has shaped the city for the past 33 years, underlying nearly every urban-planning decision, from expanding the city's borders to cutting roads to the construction of housing to the preservation of open space.
The overarching municipal goal has been to make sure the city remains the unified Jewish capital; but in Jerusalem these days, you can't help but get the sense that this battle is quietly being lost. The city seems forlorn, almost worn out.
This is due at least in part to the Al-Aqsa intifada, as the wave of Palestinian violence that started last September is known. Without tourists and without even Israelis visiting from other towns, parts of the city seemed almost deserted. Many Jerusalemites told me their friends and relatives who live elsewhere in Israel don't come to the city for the same reason tourists don't: fear.
A two-week-old municipal workers' strike that had left days of garbage piled high in the streets didn't help, but the problem is more serious than that. In a city revered for its religious significance by more than half the world's population, there is simply no money for anything beyond the most basic services. Last year's municipal budget was $525 million, and reportedly three quarters of that will have to go toward servicing the city's debt.
And there is no indication this situation is likely to change anytime soon. It is an open secret that Jerusalem is the poorest major city in Israel. It ranks at the bottom in per capita income. To understand this, you only have to look at the tax base: Approximately 27 percent of the population is Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), and 31 percent is Palestinian.
The city is now losing more than 7,000 people a year. "My friends -- the kind of educated, successful, creative people the city needs -- have all left," says Moshe Amirav, a former Jerusalem city councilman and a professor at Haifa University.
Amirav is an intense, wiry man who used to be a member of the Likud, changed his positions, and got kicked out of the party more than ten years ago for talking to the PLO. His former colleagues on the right label him an opportunist who, more than anything else, wants to be a player in Israeli politics. And he became one, when former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak chose him to head a commission of scholars and urban planners charged with developing a blueprint for dividing the city.