A Palestinian Mayor in Safra Square

With Jerusalem split evenly between secular Jews, Haredim and Arabs, Palestinians could take both the mayoralty and city council just by going to the polls en masse

Imagine the following scenario: It's 2013 and politicians are gearing up for municipal elections in Jerusalem. Nir Barkat continues to lead the secular camp, but the Haredi community - learning from their mistake in the 2008 elections - choose a candidate acceptable across the ultra-Orthodox board: perhaps Aryeh Deri.

Emil Salman
Emil Salman

Secular residents rail about this being the last opportunity to stave off a final Haredi takeover in the capital; the ultra-Orthodox talk about saving the Holy City. But then an unexpected twist utterly changes the rules of the game, astonishing secular and Orthodox Jerusalemites alike - not to mention the rest of the country: Arab Jerusalemites decide to end their 46-year boycott and go to the polls to vote for a candidate of their own in the elections.

What would happen if Palestinian politicians were to decide, for the first time since 1967, to take advantage of the voting rights possessed by the city's 250,000 Palestinians? They constitute only one-third of the population, but if unified they could break a Jewish constituency split between Barkat and, say, Deri. The Haredim would vote en masse for Deri and the secular and traditional Jews would cast most of their votes for Barkat. Meanwhile, a bunch of secular Jewish leftists, angered by Barkat's rightist stance, would also likely cast their votes for the Palestinian candidate, joining a handful of anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox denizens.

The day after the elections it would become clear that a voter-recruitment campaign in East Jerusalem was a total success, with residents flooding the polls to protest what they consider to be settler encroachment on some of their neighborhoods. And thus, suddenly, 10 Palestinian city council members would sit in Safra Square, with one of their own occupying the mayor's chair.

The identity of the new mayor is unimportant: What would really matter is that on this day, Jerusalem would turn into a paradigm of a binational state. This scenario sounds increasingly less hypothetical to influential figures in the Palestinian public.

"It depends on the peace process," says Hanna Siniora, a journalist and key figure in East Jerusalem politics. "If the process moves forward, the significance is that we will have two capitals, so we will vote for our own municipality. If the process does not advance, this would mean that the idea of two states is dead, and so we would have to think about how to deal with one state. One idea is to take part in Jerusalem elections."

Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University, has expressed similar opinions in the past. Hatem Abdel Qader, Palestinian Authority minister for Jerusalem affairs, has in the past supported the idea of Palestinian voting in the city - should his people decide that the one state-option is the only solution.

In such an event, Abdel Qader once declared, "I will call on Jerusalemites to vote even in Tel Aviv municipal elections."

Meir Margalit (Meretz ), a member of the Jerusalem municipal council, agrees that this scenario is not far-fetched.

"In numerical terms, we are talking about one-third secular, one-third Haredi and one-third Palestinian," he points out. "With regard to the secular third, it would definitely be possible to persuade some leftists to vote for an Arab candidate, or to support him after a first round of balloting." Margalit says that some anti-Zionist Haredi subgroups could also conceivably support a Palestinian candidate.

Up to now, Palestinian East Jerusalemites have completely refrained from exercising their voting rights. Such a vote in municipal elections, they say, would confer legitimacy to the Zionist municipality, and the conquest of the city's eastern side.

In 1987, Siniora proposed that the voting option be considered by Palestinians, in order to voice opposition to the spread of Jewish neighborhoods beyond the Green Line. His proposal was rejected.

"At the time, people thought that [voting] would strengthen the status quo," he explains. "Today such a vote would be designed to break the status quo."

Possible scenario?

Dr. Hillel Cohen, an expert on Arab public opinion, who teaches Middle East studies at Hebrew University, views the scenario as something that won't ever come to pass.

"When Hamas and Fatah called on residents to vote in PA elections, the voter turnout in Jerusalem was just 16 percent," he points out. "There is nobody to lead such a move."

Cohen thinks that Hamas would never take part in such a move, and that at most a Palestinian vote in Jerusalem would culminate with the election of a few less-than-influential Palestinian members to the city council - local politicians whose influence would be as marginal as Arab Knesset members' is.

"The Israelis have a plan in the drawer that they would take out in such an eventuality," Cohen says. "The plan is to establish two municipalities, one in the northern [part of the] city, and the other would be a southern municipality including only Arab residential areas."

Margalit imagines another possible response to Palestinian participation in Jerusalem elections. He suggests that Israel would immediately annex suburbs such as Mevasseret Zion, Ma'aleh Adumim and Givat Ze'ev to the city, in order to preserve a stable Jewish majority.

Still, what would happen were the country to awaken suddenly and find a Palestinian mayor ruling Jerusalem? Clearly, not only the city would feel a change. The country would have to think anew about its national identity, and whether it would want as its capital a city with a Palestinian mayor.

"Clearly, Jerusalem would not be a Jewish city, like the one the Zionist patriarchs dreamed about," Margalit observes. "But that could also represent the end of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute: When the Jewish public grasps that Jerusalem is about to fall, it would agree in a flash to make concessions about settlements."

In mathematical terms, the Palestinians might be best advised to wait an extra five years for the revolution: Statistics suggest that by the time of the 2018 municipal elections, Palestinians will constitute 40 percent of the city - precisely the percentage of votes needed to capture the mayor's seat.