Jerusalem Is Divided, and Netanyahu Remains Out of Touch

The prime minister and his policies aren't the only reasons for the intifada that has been raging in Jerusalem in recent months, but they made a decisive contribution to it.

Barak Ravid
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his Jerusalem office, October 22, 2014.Credit: AP
Barak Ravid

A petty spat between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom at Wednesday’s cabinet meeting was one of those rare moments in which politicians say what they really think. After Netanyahu said that welders earn a lot of money these days, a furious Shalom told him he was disconnected from the Israeli reality.

“You didn’t grow up here and didn’t study here,” Shalom said. “You don’t know how things work.”

Netanyahu’s fighting words about “united Jerusalem” on Thursday reflect that same disconnect from reality Shalom cited. For the last five years, and perhaps even longer, he hasn’t really lived in this city. He knows Jerusalem only from driving in armed convoys between his official residence in the Rehavia neighborhood and government offices, or from his annual walk to the Great Synagogue on Yom Kippur.

So what Jerusalem is Netanyahu talking about? The eternal capital of Israel that will never be divided exists mainly in his pompous speeches and the press statements issued by his bureau. The reality that has arisen on the ground in Jerusalem over the last decade is completely different: a physically divided city, some of whose neighborhoods are cut in two by the high separation wall, and whose Palestinian residents suffer from neglect and discrimination.

Netanyahu and his policies aren’t the only reason for the intifada that has been raging in Jerusalem in recent months, but they made a decisive contribution to it. Sometimes, Netanyahu deliberately took steps that heightened the tension, like massive construction for Jews in the eastern part of the city. Other times, he was dragged in the wake of nongovernmental organizations like Elad and Ateret Cohanim, which established Jewish settlements in the heart of crowded Palestinian neighborhoods.

But sometimes, as in the case of the Temple Mount, Netanyahu simply chose to shut his eyes. On one hand, he has publicly announced that he opposes any change in the status quo on the Mount, voiced fear that such a change would spark a religious war and sent reassuring messages to the king of Jordan. Yet on the other hand, he hasn’t done a thing when ministers in his cabinet, like Yisrael Katz and Uri Ariel, or senior Knesset members from his own party, like Zeev Elkin, worked at cross-purposes to his stated policy.

On Thursday, Netanyahu resumed his favorite role, that of a preacher. He faulted the international community for not criticizing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has also been fanning the flames over Jerusalem in recent weeks.

Netanyahu’s criticism of Abbas is justified, but with regard to the international response, he has only himself to blame. His conduct on the Palestinian issue over the last five years has stripped him of every shred of credibility in the eyes of Israel’s major Western allies. All Netanyahu can do now is claim that the whole world is against us.

In his forays into public diplomacy, Netanyahu relies on the narrow shoulders of virtually the only friend he has left among world leaders – Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Netanyahu seized on the terror attack in Ottawa, which took place almost simultaneously with Wednesday’s terror attack in Jerusalem, to assail the Palestinians and claim that a straight line connects the two incidents.

But this comparison is even more ludicrous than the one he drew between Hamas and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Aside from the fact that the terrorist in both cases was a Muslim, they bear no resemblance to each other.

In contrast to peaceful Ottawa, Jerusalem is the focus of a national conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Even if the terrorist’s motives for perpetrating the Jerusalem attack were religious fervor and pure hatred of Jews, the primary source of the intifada in the capital is the desire of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians for an end to the occupation and a life of dignified independence.

The current combination of an outbreak of violence in Jerusalem, a diplomatic clash with the Palestinians at the United Nations and Israel’s growing international isolation is a lethal cocktail. Netanyahu and his government as yet have no real answers to this problem, nor is any creative, sophisticated strategy visible on the horizon. The reason for this is that Netanyahu ignores the situation’s diplomatic causes.

The prime minister sees the incidents happening in Jerusalem purely as a security problem – disturbances of the peace that must be suppressed, terrorist attacks that must be thwarted. His solutions begin and end with using force – more policemen, more Border Police units, more involvement by the Shin Bet security service, more arrests. But all these are liable to lead only to an even more serious escalation, and cause the violence to spread to the West Bank to boot.

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