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Gordian Knot


MID PREPARATIONS FOR the Annapolis Conference, rumors abound that Israeli PM Ehud Olmert is ready to divide Jerusalem along the lines of the Clinton parameters from the year 2000. This calls for division on a demographic basis. The Arab neighborhoods would go to the Arabs and the Jewish to the Jews, including settlements built after 1967 on conquered lands. There would be special provisions for an area designated as the Holy Basin, including the Old City, parts of the Mount of Olives, Silwan and Mount Zion.

Hatem Abed al-Kader, an advisor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, told Challenge on October 24 that negotiations are indeed underway concerning Jerusalem. They are proceeding, he confirmed, more or less in accord with the Clinton concept, although this term is not explicitly used. The talks, he says, are foggy, for Israel isn’t ready to indicate the Arab neighborhoods it would be ready to give up. “Until now we have seen no breakthrough,” he said.

The Arab media hardly relate to the issue, apparently because Jerusalem (for reasons we shall see) is a thorn in the Palestinian consensus. The Israeli media, however, are intensely preoccupied with it, especially after Olmert’s remarks on two occasions in the Knesset: there is no reason, he said, why Jerusalem must include villages like Walaja or Um Tuba. Even arch right-winger Avigdor Lieberman announced his readiness to transfer certain Arab neighborhoods to the PA within the framework of land exchange. All this caused furor in the ranks of the Right, which went into a knee-jerk reaction against the division of Jerusalem. The Left, for its part, hastened to Olmert’s support, believing that he would indeed divide the city and thus advance toward an end of the Occupation.

But the brouhaha is premature. First, if the division of Jerusalem were a real possibility now, this would bring catastrophe down on the heads of those Arabs who would be cut off. It would also foreclose the possibility of returning to the lines of June 4, 1967, which is the only division that most Palestinians will accept. Finally, despite the sensitivity of this issue, Israel has been making provocations in Jerusalem: it has decided to renew the archaeological dig at the Mughrabi Gate that leads to al-Aqsa, and it has again raised the matter of E-1. Such actions raise doubts about its intentions. Let us take up these points one by one.

The demographic balance

There is nothing new in Israel’s idea of shedding the crowded Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem in exchange for an agreement allowing it to annex large settlements like the city’s bedroom suburb, Maaleh Adumim. Israel has long viewed the Jerusalem Palestinians as a budgetary burden, because they benefit from national insurance, medical insurance, child allowances, old-age payments and unemployment compensation. More importantly, however, Israel is concerned about a demographic trend that could lead to the loss of a decisive Jewish majority in the city.

The trend is a direct result of Israel’s decision, soon after the 1967 War, to annex 70 square kilometers to Jerusalem. This area stretches from the southern edge of Ramallah to the northern edge of Bethlehem, including villages and refugee camps. Under Jordanian rule, East Jerusalem took up only 6 square kilometers.

A report by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, published at October’s end, points out that the rate of natural increase among the city’s Arab population is twice that of the Jewish. At this pace, it says, the proportion of Jews in Jerusalem will drop by 2020 from its present 64% to 60%, the Arab proportion increasing to 40%.

The Institute was among the first, years ago, to support removal of the crowded Palestinian neighborhoods from Jerusalem. Today, however, it points out the obstacles: dividing the city would raise very complex problems in politics and planning as well as on the human plane.

The political problem is clear. In exchange for certain Arab neighborhoods, the Palestinians would have to recognize Israel’s annexation of an enormous strip of settlements surrounding the city: Ramot Eshkol, French Hill, Ramot, Givat Ze’ev, Pisgat Ze’ev and Neve Yaakov in the north; Maaleh Adumim and Talpiot Mizrach in the east; Gilo and Har Homa in the south. Israel would also annex settlements that are presently in the heart of crowded Arab neighborhoods, such as Sheikh Jarrakh, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and Silwan. This would contravene the Palestinian consensus, which demands that Israel return what it conquered in 1967 as a condition for sustainable peace.

Second, there is the human plane. Were Jerusalem to be divided, many of its 250,000 Palestinians would find themselves outside the city. They would be cut off not only from welfare benefits, but also from their relatives, their places of work, their schools and hospitals, their markets, their mosques—in sum, from the center of their existence. They would join the long lines of hungry people on the other side of the separation wall. If there were a functioning state and an economy on that side, things would look different. In the present circumstances, the separation of these people from Jerusalem would transform their lot decidedly for the worse. It is no wonder, then, that they reject the idea. Many of these problems would arise, we note, even if the city were divided in accordance with the Palestinian demands—that is, along the 1967 lines.

Third, during forty years of Occupation Israel built settlements and roads through the length and breadth of expanded Jerusalem. Recently it added the separation wall, cutting Palestinian continuity. It is hard to believe that a Palestinian leader, even President Mahmoud Abbas, would be willing to accept sovereignty over the bits and pieces that Israel might be willing to shed, strung together by tunnels, bridges and bypass roads. This situation makes the division of Jerusalem (and the establishment of a Palestinian state) an idea with no purchase in reality.


Despite the lack of prospect for agreement on Jerusalem, Israel behaves as if it could persuade the Palestinians to accept what it will offer. It has recently beefed up activities in the parts of the occupied city that it means to keep. In October it decided to renew the archaeological excavations at the Mughrabi Gate, which caused a furor among Muslims in February (see Challenge 102, “Dig We Must?”). The renewal has been delayed because Israel’s first and only Arab cabinet minister, Ghaleb Majadleh (Sports, Science and Culture), has demanded further discussion.

Israel has also renewed activity in E-1. This is the area between Jerusalem and the bedroom settlement of Maaleh Adumim. Israel will need E-1 in order to annex the latter, thereby cutting the last decent possibility for territorial continuity between Ramallah and Bethlehem—that is, between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank. On September 24, the government confiscated 1.4 square kilometers from Palestinians with the idea of paving a road joining East Jerusalem to Jericho; the road will separate Palestinian drivers from the to-be-annexed E-1. A few days later, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter decided to transfer the West Bank police headquarters to E-1.

A peace agreement? Not now.

The division of Jerusalem, for all the reasons stated, is not an option today. Without agreement on the issue, however, there can be no peace. It is no wonder, then, that Olmert is trying to lower expectations, saying that the one-day Annapolis Conference should issue a noncommittal declaration, followed by negotiations fading into the indefinite future. The idea is to camouflage failure. For failure is dangerous. The failure of Camp David in July 2000 helped produce an Intifada. The failure of Annapolis in 2007 could undermine what little is left of the PA in the West Bank, opening the field to Hamas.

The chances of success at Annapolis are summed up by Abed al-Kader: “I’m not particularly optimistic, because none of the main participants is ready to reach a solution. We Palestinians aren’t ready because of our internal situation: we don’t arrive at the conference united. Olmert is as weak as prime ministers get, a shilly-shallier. As for Bush, in contrast with Clinton, he has no real interest in peace. His sole concern is with the peace and well-being of his party in the next elections.” "end"

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