Israel's Opposition Leader Would Set Jerusalem – and the Muslim World – on Fire

Isaac Herzog's recent proposal to separate off Palestinian neighborhoods – 'They over there and we over here; we'll erect a big wall between us' – tosses Palestinians from one side to another without fear of consequences.

Olivier Fitoussi

About two months ago, a meeting of Jerusalem experts was held in Tel Aviv. On the table was a proposed political solution that included interim measures for separating Palestinian neighborhoods from Jerusalem. What was striking was the fact that, although the Jerusalemites in the room held different political positions on the city’s future status, they were unanimous in their agreement that unilateral separation measures would spell disaster for Jerusalem.

Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog recently presented a purported “proposal” for the division of Jerusalem that takes exactly the opposite position. “I wish to separate from as many Palestinians as possible, as quickly as possible. They over there and we over here; we’ll erect a big wall between us. That is the kind of co-existence that’s possible now." 

Herzog's plan, to “reunite the real Jerusalem without hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who will be on the other side of the barrier”, ties into a discourse revolving around plans that advocate draconian unilateral measures in response to a complicated political and security situation. These plans continue a long-standing tradition of the Labor Party and those at its edges in which Palestinians are no more than an undistinguished mass without will or agency that can be tossed from one side to another without consequence. 

This is precisely the tradition that Yitzhak Rabin managed to break, and to which Ehud Barak returned with a vengeance. Rabin understood that an agreement is not just a document; it’s a worldview translated into the way we shape reality and live it.

The reality behind the plan for “disengagement from the Palestinian villages in East Jerusalem” – which for decades have not been villages, but rather huge neighborhoods encompassing intricate urban spaces – is the aspiration to perpetuate Israel’s control of Jerusalem's Historic Basin, site of its most important and sensitive cultural and religious monuments, to tear it away from the Palestinian neighborhoods that surround it and to tighten the grip over the Palestinians who live there and constitute more than 90% of its residents. 

What is presented as separation of Israelis from Palestinians is in effect separation of Palestinians from Palestinians in Jerusalem for the purpose of establishing further facts on the ground. Not only will these facts turn the entire Muslim world and the international community against Israel; advancing new facts is a certain formula for setting Jerusalem on fire.

To understand the fate of the neighborhoods that would be cut off from their center of life and placed behind barriers, it is enough to look at the East Jerusalem neighborhoods the existing Separation Barrier has severed from the city and rendered into ghettoes of abject poverty and distress. Israeli authorities’ promises to service these neighborhoods have repeatedly proven hollow. Some of those who promote separation toy with the idea of turning them over to the Palestinian Authority – in effect, behaving as though the PA did not exist, while at the same time expecting the PA to take responsibility for actions taken in total disregard of it, actions that place at its doorstep unimaginable political, urban and humanitarian chaos. 

If anyone thinks that coercive actions leading to the dismantlement of physical, social and community structures and to the disintegration of East Jerusalem will not have an impact on the security situation, they should refer to the percentage of terror attacks committed by youth from the neighborhoods beyond the Barrier. The Barrier did not stop them, and more and more barriers will only exacerbate the existing situation. Such barriers will undoubtedly fail to contribute to a future political resolution.

What the Jerusalemite experts in the meeting room knew was that fifty years of the city’s “reunification” have created a complex reality resting on delicate balances that are easy to destroy but very difficult to restore. These balances are the real Jerusalem, the one in which the majority did not choose the existing reality but must, in the meantime, live their lives. Every day, 140,000 Israelis and Palestinians take the light rail in Jerusalem and tens of thousands meet in workplaces and shopping centers. They cannot afford to wake up in the morning to political spin. 

This city, as the present home and future capital of two peoples, must be managed with extreme caution. Even if difficult to implement that vision in the foreseeable future, it must inform the way Jerusalem is governed in the present. There are actions that can be taken now to improve the living conditions, personal security and positive future outlook of all the city’s residents: to refrain completely from establishing unilateral facts on the ground; promote a political climate that is conducive to a solution; and allow the Palestinian residents of the city to build their institutions and run their lives in the city. This will not be easy, but there is no other way. In the meantime, spare us the spin.  We – Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem – have to board the train and get home safely.

Yudith Oppenheimer is Executive Director of Ir Amim, a non-profit organization working to make Jerusalem a more equitable and sustainable city for the Israelis and Palestinians who share it.