Israeli-Palestinian Peace |

How Does One Divide an 'Indivisible' City?

Israel was prepared to recognize, as early as the mid 1990s, that parts of the same Jerusalem Netanyahu insists are part of the eternal capital were actually under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction. So what changed?

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

When Yesh Atid’s Ofer Shelah said earlier this week that a peace agreement would mean a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, it sent the Oslo foes fuming. How could a member of the popular party led by Yair Lapid – a key player in Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition – make such an obvious overture in the direction of a shared Jerusalem? After all, Lapid’s position is that the holy city must remain united under Israel’s sovereignty, the same party line expressed by Netanyahu and everyone else in his Likud party.

But when it comes to Jerusalem, there is a yawning gap between what Israeli politicians will say in public and what they say in private – and Shelah simply pushed the party line by offering his honest thoughts on the matter at a Peace Now “pub talk” at the Radio Bar in Tel Aviv.

The Oslo Accords clearly spelled out that the status of Jerusalem is a matter to be discussed and negotiated in the final status talks. In the interim, Arab East Jerusalemites would even be permitted to vote for the Palestinian Legislative Council, and did so beginning in 1996. In short, Israel was prepared to recognize, as early as the mid 1990s, that parts of the same Jerusalem politicians insist is the “united, indivisible, eternal” capital were actually the natural constituency of the Palestinian Authority.

Such an explicit acknowledgement of Palestinian rights in Jerusalem has largely dropped out of the public’s memory. But so, it seems, has the actual location of the Green Line, and which parts of the city are actually inside or beyond Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries. Journalist and author Gershom Gorenberg, writing in The American Prospect this week, exposed an embarrassment in which Netanyahu’s government mistakenly identified the Har Hotzvim high-tech hub of Jerusalem as being over the Green Line. Had the controversial new EU policy of restricting funding to projects in the Israeli settlements been in effect a few years ago - according to an erroneous statement issued after Netanyahu’s meeting with senior cabinet members - companies like Teva Pharmaceutical Industries would not have been eligible for an important EU loan it received.

Clearly, some of the most in-the-know Israelis have a fuzzy perception of where the Green Line once lay and which neighborhoods are, under Israeli law, part of the Jerusalem following their unilateral annexation in 1980. Equally remarkabe, there is a vast amount of disinformation about what negotiating over Jerusalem would entail.

Many Israelis assume that a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem – alongside the Israeli one – equals a redivision of Jerusalem. The only reference point some people can access is the past, and they imagine a recreation of the situation between 1948 and 1967, when the city was divided between the Israel and Jordan, and sniper fire was a real risk for anyone who lived on the edge.

That is not, however, the solution that Palestinian negotiators have in mind, particularly the more pragmatic among them.

“We want an open and shared city, not a divided city. That’s our position,” says “a Palestinian official close to the negotiations in Ramallah. “We want our own municipality, but we will need to have coordination between both municipalities. We don’t envision a wall down the middle of it all.”

This concept of a shared but open Jerusalem has been floated in the past, but anyone with a penchant for realpolitik may find it challenging to wrap his or her mind around how it would actually work. Where would Israel end and Palestine begin? Could the Old City sites so precious to both peoples be a safe and accessible zone in the middle without one side feeling completely dominated by the other? Academics and cartographers on each side’s negotiations support teams have studied the issue extensively. But plucking a plan off the shelf and trying to implement it may be the toughest job the negotiators will face – if they even get to that point.

And yet, it may be too late to go any other route. Jerusalem has changed so much in the last decade – not to mention in the two decades since the Oslo Accords were signed, and in the 46 years since its been under Israel’s control – that a physical redivision of the city has become not only undesirable, but unfathomable. The city and the state have recently added new highways, new roads, and new homes, ignoring the international backlash. The new light rail makes its way deep into East Jerusalem.

The road system in particular complicates the idea of demarcating a clear physical boundary between Israeli and Palestinian Jerusalem.

“There are four or five new roads which are like an infrastructure that Israel relies on, and Israel will say it must keep these roads, and the neighborhoods they run through. Ultimately it will make their separation from Palestinian neighborhoods much more difficult,” says Aviv Tatarksy, a researcher at Ir Amim, an NGO focused on “an equitable and stable Jerusalem with a negotiated political future.”

The light rail, for example, provides a service for Palestinians – especially for people living in Beit Hanina and Shuafat, in northern Jerusalem – but it also means that these areas are becoming inextricably linked with the downtown heart of the Israeli capital. “Every decision Israel makes has problematic consequences,” says Tatarsky. “I wouldn’t call any of these irreversible, but rather, complicating matters.”

Complicated, yes. Insoluble, no.

“I don’t see a possible peace agreement in which the Palestinians cannot call East Jerusalem the capital of the Palestinian state,” Shelah said in his talk in Tel Aviv, words which quickly made their way to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington. “The solution in Jerusalem will be very complex. It will be a solution of words as much as actions. On the ground, it’s impossible to put up a wall and say, ‘This is ours and that’s theirs.’”

Separation barrier in Jerusalem with Dome of the Rock in backgroundCredit: Alex Levac

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