The dispute about properties in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah that were under Jewish ownership before the 1948 War of Independence has a worthy, wise solution proposed by former Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair, along with jurists Judith Karp and Dan Zeidman: The government, they argue, should take possession of these assets in order to protect public order in Jerusalem, prevent friction and set the stage for a political agreement in the city.
The proposal is based on two previous legal opinions. The first was delivered by Attorney General Yosef Harish in 1991, holding that security officials have the authority to harm the property rights of Jewish settlers in the City of David if there is "near certainty that public order will be disturbed," and if there is "risk to public safety" (Elyakim Rubinstein also signed this opinion ). The second opinion belongs to Menachem Mazuz, who stipulated in 1999 that the state should confiscate assets purchased by Irving Moskowitz in Jerusalem, "in order to promote peace and prevent harm to public order."
Ben-Yair's family lived in Sheikh Jarrah before the state was established. It left the neighborhood in 1949, and rejected an offer to return to its old house made in 1971 by the state Custodian of Absentee Property. Yet even without this personal dimension, the proposal has considerable validity. As with other locales in East Jerusalem, Jewish settlement in Sheikh Jarrah has a cast of violent provocation. Relying on old ownership deeds they have found, as well as the support of various wealthy patrons and religious-right activists, settlers are demanding that Palestinians be forced out of their homes. For its part, the government claims that this is a civil-legal dispute, and so it has no business intervening; in this way, the government is abetting the settlers and backing a policy of inequality in this area.
Efforts to reclaim Jewish assets in East Jerusalem open up old "1948 files," invite Palestinians to pursue reciprocal claims on the western side of the city, undermine Israeli opposition to a right of refugee return, sabotage hopes of a peace agreement and turn Jerusalem into a flashpoint in the continuing dispute. The government, however, still has the power to amend this distortion. Should it adopt the proposal to appropriate this property, the government will prove that Israel still has the ability to heed the voice of reason.