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.
“My friends don’t want to be here with the Haredi, the political tension, the high cost of living, and the economic problems,” Amirav says. “All of them are in Tel Aviv today. I’m staying because I love Jerusalem. But I am in the minority.”
The prospect of being in a minority, in fact, is troublesome to many in the city. Nearly one third of the city’s 650,000 residents are Palestinian. And when you include the city’s satellite neighborhoods, the figure swells to more than 320,000, or 10 percent of the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza.
“The numbers really speak for themselves,” Amirav says. “Today, 31 percent of the city is Palestinian, and they have a growth rate of 3.5 percent. We have a growth rate of 1.5 percent. So, if nothing changes, in 20 or 25 years they could be almost half the population.”
Religiously, Jerusalem is an answer. But politically, it’s a question: Will it become a city defined by its extremes, where the majority of its people are either religious zealots or relegated to the role of second-class citizens? Will military power, which restored it to Israel more than 30 years ago, be required to keep it?
“I have to tell you that I love my country,” says Amirav, “and for me, Israel is really Jerusalem and Hebron and Ramallah, not Tel Aviv and the kibbutzim. The holy places, the land of the Bible, that’s why we came here and not Uganda, or Florida for that matter. But we now have to realize there is no way but compromise. Since 1967, our policies in Jerusalem have been like the march of follies. After the war, we were already afraid Jerusalem would become a binational city. And back then, the Jewish population was 75 percent. But we wanted it to be 90 or 95 percent. And look at what’s happened.”
Amirav, along with other members of the commission he headed, advocates dividing the city. Not with walls or fences or any kind of physical barriers but with a clear separation of political and administrative responsibilities. “You have to realize that Jerusalem is already divided,” says Dr. Menachem Klein of Bar-Ilan University, who is also a senior research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. “It is not a multicultural and a multireligious city. It is united now only in slogans. The borders are very soft and essentially invisible, so there’s the impression the city is united, but everyone knows where those borders are. Israelis don’t go to the Palestinian neighborhoods. Or they go only at great risk.”
Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, goes even further. “The concept of a united Jerusalem is a total failure, and those who continue to stick to this idea have to answer for what they haven’t done since ‘67 to make it a united Jerusalem,” says Alpher, who is also a former member of the Mossad and the onetime director of political affairs in Israel for the American Jewish Committee.
“We have failed miserably to find ways to adequately deal with the needs of the city’s Palestinian residents. And you have to ask why, at this point, we would still want to rule over them anyway.”
West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem are not like two different neighborhoods characterized by two different cultures. The two halves of Jerusalem are more like two different nations. West, or Jewish, Jerusalem is a sprawling metropolis with an ever-spreading skyline marked by high-rise condominium towers, office buildings, hotels, and malls. As Israel’s capital, it is also home to some of the country’s signature structures: the Knesset, the Israel Museum, houses for the prime minister and the president, and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial.
Life in West Jerusalem flows according to the rhythms of the Hebrew calendar and Jewish law. Essentially, every restaurant is kosher; the city shuts down on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, while Sunday is just another day of the week. Even in the large, international hotels like the Hilton and the Hyatt Regency, you cannot get a meal cooked to order or a freshly brewed cup of coffee on Saturday, when use of the stoves is prohibited.
Arab East Jerusalem – Al Quds, as the city is known in Arabic – runs according to the cadence of the Islamic calendar. The Sabbath is Friday, and five times a day you can hear the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from the minarets of the mosques. The eastern half of the city looks quite different as well, more like a collection of Middle Eastern villages than the Westernized city across town.
Each half of Jerusalem has its own buses – they’re red in the West and blue in the East. And as a result of an odd combination of Israeli neglect and benevolence, the Palestinians have, over time, taken more and more control of their own affairs by creating and running their own institutions. They decide what’s taught in East Jerusalem’s public schools. They also have their own unions, as well as a Muslim legal system that handles civil and social issues like marriage.
And today, though the Palestinian Authority is officially prohibited from functioning within the city, Israelis look the other way and ignore the fact that Orient House, a stately old palazzo in East Jerusalem, serves as the unofficial Palestinian capital building, where high-ranking members of the PA and the PLO regularly gather.
“Even under Netanyahu, the PLO crept in and continued to increase its presence,” says Yossi Alpher. “And many of the functions that should have been handled by the state of Israel – judicial matters, police work, and such – are now handled by the PLO.”
Though Ehud Barak’s efforts at Camp David were astonishingly clumsy and erratic, his decision to put Jerusalem on the table was not only stipulated in the Oslo agreements – it was a reflection of the reality on the ground.
But some of the reasons for his train wreck with the Palestinians have become painfully clear. “Barak believed he could ignore Palestinian expectations during the interim period on the assumption he’d eventually make such a good offer it wouldn’t matter,” Alpher says. “The result was, the Palestinians witnessed Barak continuing to build and expand settlements, continuing to build and expand Jewish neighborhoods in Arab areas of Jerusalem, and there was no new territory turned over in the West Bank. In Palestinian eyes, they were getting shafted.”
The Palestinians, Alpher points out, were uniformly violating their responsibilities as well. They were doing little to stop incitement and violence and virtually nothing to halt the flow of illegal weapons into the territories. Nor did the leadership do anything to prepare its people for peace.
In this atmosphere of disappointment and distrust, Barak made the enormous error of believing that he could wait till he got to Camp David to open up the most sensitive issue of all – Jerusalem. And that he could somehow succeed in closing a deal in just thirteen days.
“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.”
Standing at a large, detailed map of the city hanging on the wall, he points to the contiguous neighborhoods of Pisgat Ze’ev and Neve Ya’akov in the northeast corner of the city. Because they are east of the Palestinian areas of Shu’afat and Beit Hanina, he says, they would be cut off from the rest of Jewish Jerusalem if the city were divided. They would end up as an Israeli island floating in a hostile Palestinian sea.
“When I pointed this out to Barak, he suddenly started talking about high-tech solutions, bridges and tunnels, and new roads. All the things he dismissed when they were offered as a way to keep the settlements.”
What Olmert doesn’t mention is that these Jewish neighborhoods were purposely built in these locations to try to sever the Palestinian neighborhoods from the rest of the West Bank. This kind of urban-planning strategy, which has been used repeatedly since 1967, has pushed the city’s boundaries farther and farther into the West Bank, and has completely backfired for the Israelis.
“In the euphoria after the ‘67 War, we annexed 70 square kilometers of the West Bank around Jerusalem,” says Amirav. “Not only the Old City but 28 villages as well. We thought we could shape the Middle East. We thought we could make Jerusalem homogeneous. But what we actually did was nearly double the number of Palestinians within the city. We gave them blue identity cards and government benefits. We made East Jerusalem the capital of the West Bank. We created an economic base for them. When Jordan controlled the territories, Jerusalem was a minor city. More Palestinians were leaving than coming. The major centers for them were Ramallah and Nablus.”
There is one critical area where Olmert and Amirav overlap, though they draw very different conclusions. Both men believe the treatment of Palestinians in Jerusalem since the ‘67 War has been badly mishandled. Olmert, however, believes it is still possible to rectify what’s been done (or what hasn’t been done) and keep the city united.
“We need to do what I’ve been preaching to all Israeli governments,” says Olmert, “and that is to treat the residents of East Jerusalem as they deserve to be treated, as our partners. Let’s invest in their quality of life, and let’s make the East side of the city equal in every aspect. It’s never been tried. The money has to come from the government, and Arik Sharon has promised me he will be helpful.”
This is the received wisdom of the right: Give the Palestinian residents a greater stake in the city, and full assimilation is possible. Or, more precisely, assimilation that is at least the equivalent of what has been achieved with Israel’s other Arab citizens.
On Election Day in Israel eight weeks ago, on street corners all around the city, groups of young people in red-white-and-blue Sharon T-shirts were waving banners and giving out bumper stickers that read: only sharon will keep jerusalem. Sharon has what is essentially a two-track plan to keep all of the city as the Israeli capital.
The first part, as articulated by Olmert, is to try to make the Palestinian residents partners. But while it is indisputable that most of Jerusalem’s Palestinians want no part of the Palestinian Authority, which they see as corrupt and inept, it is woefully unrealistic at this point to believe they can be seduced into living happily under Israeli rule.
The second half of the strategy is to stem Jewish flight from the city and entice more Jews to move to Jerusalem by offering them incentives and building new housing. A smaller piece of this effort is to aggressively assert Jewish sovereignty over the entire city by having Jews buy real estate and move into Palestinian neighborhoods (this is viewed by many Israelis and Palestinians as a naked provocation). There are, for example, 25 Jewish families living among more than 5,000 Palestinians in Silwan, a neighborhood just outside the Old City’s walls. Sharon himself, of course, maintains an apartment in the Muslim quarter of the Old City.
“I admit that it’s late, but it’s not too late,” the mayor says. “And I’m not going to tell you it’s not a battle. It’s the most complex city in the world. But that doesn’t mean the city has to go in a particular direction because it fits a certain political strategy. And as far as having a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem is concerned,” Olmert says, getting up to put on his jacket, “Arik can say to them, ‘Hey, look, guys, you were offered Jerusalem. I disagreed with it. Olmert disagreed with it. But Barak offered it to you with all the neighborhoods and the Temple Mount and the Old City. And were you ready to sign a peace treaty? You were not. So Jerusalem was not the obstacle.’ “
As he heads out the door for an early-evening appointment, he stops and adds: “So now that peace seems not to be around the corner, dividing the city is not a relevant question, and I’m ready to do what most Arabs of East Jerusalem want: to build a foundation of peaceful co-existence by investing in their needs.”
On the morning after Ariel Sharon’s stunning victory in February, Avraham Burg, the Speaker of the Knesset, stood at the top of some stairs leading down to the broad plaza in front of the Western Wall. It was unusually quiet at the Wall that morning. Under a dark sky, bored-looking Israeli soldiers and police casually kept an eye on the scene as a handful of men, lost in prayer and, judging by their ultra-Orthodox frocks, lost in time as well, rocked languorously back and forth in front of the holy shrine.
“Look at this,” said Burg, an observant Jew who got his start in politics eighteen years ago protesting the war in Lebanon. “Stand right here and look around. What do you see? You see the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, the Mosque of Omar the Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa, and the Jewish Quarter.”
From the vantage point he had chosen, both the Wall and the mosques were essentially at eye level, making it possible in one snapshot to actually feel the claustrophobic nature of the conflict. “This,” Burg said, moving his outstretched hand slowly from left to right to take in the entire tableau, “this is the heart of it. This is where the heart of the conflict beats.”
A woman still celebrating the bar mitzvah of her son several days after the event came over to Burg and gave him candy (the traditional sweets for a sweet occasion). Then a much older woman walked up to him and explained in Hebrew that she was the grandmother of Yisrael, Tehila, and Orit Cohen, three siblings aged 7 to 12, all of whom lost limbs when their school bus was bombed by terrorists in Gaza only weeks earlier.
The woman, whose face was drawn by sadness, told Burg she did “not understand the acts of the other side.” Then she looked up at the sky and said she would “pray to God to introduce wisdom to all the leaders.”
The next night, with a heavy rain falling in sheets against the walls of the Old City, I made my way to the elegant American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem for coffee with Meron Benvenisti. Drinking a double espresso and chain-smoking as if his life depended on it, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem held out little hope of wisdom from either side.
“The city is not ready for a permanent solution,” he says. “The whole approach of looking for the ultimate solution is not only impractical but in itself creates tension. Because only when you try to come up with a permanent solution do the two sides begin to understand how far apart they really are.”
“Only when you try to come up with a permanent solution do the two sides begin to understand how far apart they really are.”
Despite Benvenisti’s hard-earned cynicism, many on both sides also know how close they actually were at various moments to an understanding. “It takes time,” Amirav says, “and maybe it will take different leadership on both sides.”
But he believes that in his lifetime, there will be a divided yet open city. A city without checkpoints between East and West and with unsupervised movement between the two sides. A city in which the Palestinians control their own destiny and the Israelis can live peacefully, relieved of the burden of the occupier.
The official entry points for visa control and Customs, and to prevent the entry of terrorists, would be outside the city boundaries. Basic services like water, sewage, and electricity would be kept intact where it makes sense, rather than split in two. The primary change might be which local authority the bill would come from.
Critics argue that security would be a nightmare and that this setup would result in chaos and virtually unrestrained violence. They point to the repeated nighttime sniper attacks on Gilo over the past six months as simply a small taste of what would happen if the city were divided. The reason, they argue, that Gilo is the only Jerusalem neighborhood where there have been these kinds of incidents is that Beit Jala – the village where the snipers fire from – is outside the city limits and under the control of the Palestinian Authority, not the Israelis.
It is true that as long as the Israelis control the entire city, they can pursue and arrest people in East Jerusalem. But in a shared city, mutual interests should ensure quiet. “Of course we did worst-case scenarios where we’d have to establish checkpoints and roadblocks and retake control,” says Amirav. “We would not enter into this blindly.”
In this vision of a peaceful, divided Jerusalem, the Old City, that one square kilometer that is perhaps the most fought-over piece of real estate in history, would be shared by the two sides (including the Temple Mount) and policed by an elite, specially trained and educated force. It would be an opportunity, in the city of peace, for the Israelis and Palestinians to have something together.
It’s a vision of the promised land that seems as magical – and as difficult for contemporary minds to believe – as anything in the Old Testament. Which doesn’t mean it’s not possible. “This is a conflict between two groups afraid that their very self-identity will be denied,” says Amirav. “What we really want is for the Palestinians to recognize our deep historical and religious connection to this land. And they refuse. Why? Because for them, it’s too dangerous to say we’re partners in this place because that means it’s really not theirs.”
On the other hand, the Palestinians want Israelis to acknowledge their responsibility – not completely, but at least partially – in the Palestinians’ suffering. “Everybody talks about security and trust and this much land or that much land, and these are all technicalities,” Amirav says finally. “The real issue is identity, and we are both not ready yet. But the minute Arafat will say, ‘Yes, you can share this mountain. It’s yours, too,’ I’ll know the time has come.”