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Divided We Stand

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"He did courageously try to slaughter some sacred cows and prepare the Israeli public for hard concessions on issues like the settlements and the refugees," says Alpher. "But he felt that if he talked about the partition of Jerusalem before the negotiations, he wouldn't have been able to function politically. The protests would have been too great. He didn't even let his negotiators talk about it. He waited until he and Arafat and Clinton were at Camp David to discuss the holy of holies. He seriously underestimated the explosive effect this would have on the process." (He also, of course, underestimated Arafat's epic intransigence and his refusal, as it turned out, to negotiate in good faith.)

The perception that Barak put the Old City in play and offered to give up the holy places (there's been an enormous amount of inaccurate information generally about what he did and didn't offer) for all intents and purposes sealed his government's fate. But the current reality, which is often either ignored or simply left unspoken, is that the Palestinians now effectively control the Temple Mount, or, as the Palestinians call it, Haram al-Sharif.

Nor is it particularly well known that since 1996, the Palestinians have been engaged in various construction projects on the Mount. On the southeastern corner of the platform, in an area known as Solomon's Stables, they have built a new underground mosque believed to have a capacity of 10,000 people.

"We have to forget about this issue of sovereignty over the mountain," says Moshe Amirav. "We don't have it today anyway."

Until now, Jerusalem has been like the eye of the hurricane. You can feel the tension, but the violence, often carried out in the name of Jerusalem, takes place with much more frequency elsewhere. Still, there are fears that the longer the Al-Aqsa intifada rages on and the longer fresh hostilities prevent the two sides from resuming talks, the more likely it becomes that tensions inside the city will finally explode.

"The Tanzim militia and other activist groups," says Menachem Klein, "are putting pressure on the Palestinian Establishment to let them act inside the city, to show that Jerusalem is not a calm and peaceful city because of Israeli rule."

"Dividing the city is a theoretical concept. You think you can do it, but it's a prescription for disaster. It will tear the city apart."

Relative calm prevails because both sides recognize they have too much to lose by bringing the violence into the city. Jerusalem's Palestinians have displayed little interest in jeopardizing the package of benefits they get from Israel, which includes health insurance,
social security, unemployment insurance, and the right to vote -- though for the most part they boycott the city's elections, lest it appear they are endorsing what they see as the Israeli occupation.

"They also know very well the nature of the Palestinian Authority, and they don't want to live under Arafat," says Meron Benvenisti, a writer, historian, and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem. "They'd much rather live under Israeli rule and claim they want to be free. It's an interesting clash between individual rights and collective rights. It's a struggle and an uneasy balance. They debate among themselves all the time about how much they're willing to give up."

But the threat of rising extremism in East Jerusalem, by itself, is no reason to contemplate something as dramatic as dividing the city. In fact, given the Israeli policy of not rewarding Palestinian violence (or at least trying not to look like they reward it), any ratcheting-up of the conflict within the city could very well have the opposite effect of what's intended. It might make Israelis so skittish about what would happen if the Palestinians had control of their neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that a deal could become impossible.

Ultimately, the most compelling case for separation from the Israeli point of view has little to do with mollifying the Palestinians. It is, instead, all about saving the city and ensuring its future as the flourishing, thriving capital of the state of Israel. "If we do nothing, it will be an economic disaster," says Moshe Amirav. "Average people will continue to leave the city, and in perhaps as little as five years, the city will elect an ultra-Orthodox mayor. Jerusalem will become Bnei Brak," he says, referring to a very poor, ultra-Orthodox town just outside Tel Aviv.

On the other hand, dividing the city has the potential to produce an economic and social rebirth. The financial burden of East Jerusalem would become the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority. The city would finally be recognized internationally as Israel's undisputed capital, countries (including the U.S.) would at last move their embassies, and a chain reaction would be set off by an influx of diplomats and support personnel who'd need apartments, hotel rooms, restaurants, and shops. And in West Jerusalem, there would likely be a building boom that would create thousands of new jobs and attract thousands of new residents.

As long as the conflict rages on, the city is also in danger of being buried under a blanket of concrete and asphalt. There is a constant scramble by both sides to create facts on the ground by building something, anything, anywhere, to lay claim to every hillside and every piece of unoccupied land. This unlimited and unplanned use of space is, say people who love Jerusalem, a formula for destroying the city.

"Look," Amirav says, "Ehud Olmert Jerusalem's mayor knows what I know, Sharon knows what I know, and I assure you they are not going to lose the city. Olmert is moving in my direction. I have talked to him about it. He will deny it if you ask him, but in his heart he knows the truth."

Sitting in his office in Jerusalem's municipal complex near the Old City's Jaffa Gate on a quiet Sunday afternoon, Mayor Olmert hardly sounded like a man whose stance on the city has softened. In fact, Olmert seemed energized by Sharon's ascendance. "Dividing the city is a theoretical concept. You think you can do it, but it's a prescription for urban disaster. It will tear the city apart and it will make life here impossible," says Olmert, a member of the Likud Party who has been mayor since 1993. "You'll have to pass through three or maybe even more checkpoints to move from one part of the city to another. And Israelis will encounter Palestinians with guns at each spot and they'll have to stand down. And within five minutes, there will be a clash and somebody will shoot."


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