Commentary Magazine


Topic: dividing Jerusalem

The Dangerous Divided Jerusalem Fantasy

On this date in the Hebrew calendar 47 years ago, Israeli forces ended the division of Jerusalem. The city had been split during the Arab siege of the capital in 1948 and it remained cut in half by an ugly wall as well as by dangerous no-man’s-land zones. The victory in the Six-Day War ended an illegal occupation of the eastern portion of the city as well as the walled Old City by Jordan that had lasted for 19 years but was not recognized by the world. In breaking down the barriers, the Israelis not only reunited the city but opened access to its religious shrines—including the Western Wall and the Temple Mount—which had been off limits for Jews during the Jordanian occupation. But as Israelis celebrated what is known as “Jerusalem Day” today, support for the push to reinstate the division of the city in the international community has grown. Every Middle East peace plan proposed in the last 15 years, including the three Israeli offers of statehood that the Palestinians turned down, included a new partition of Jerusalem even though both sides remain murky about how that could be accomplished without reinstating the warlike atmosphere that prevailed before June 1967.

But for those who believe that such a partition is essential to peace, the process by which a city that has grown exponentially in the last five decades, with Jews and Arabs no longer neatly divided by a wall, could be split is merely a matter of details. To fill in the blanks for its readers, Haaretz published a Jerusalem Day feature that provided the answer to the question. Highlighting a complicated scheme put forward by a Jerusalem architectural firm, the paper asserted that most Jerusalemites wouldn’t even notice the difference if their city was re-partitioned. On the surface the plan, which has been funded by a variety of left-wing sources, seems practical if complicated and expensive. But it is not only completely unrealistic; it is based on a fantasy that the real problem in Jerusalem is primarily one of engineering, aesthetics, and logistics. Like every other element of other utopian peace plans that are sold to both the Israeli and Western publics as the solution that “everybody knows” must eventually happen, this vision of Jerusalem ignores the fundamental problem of peace: the fact that the Palestinians don’t want it.

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On this date in the Hebrew calendar 47 years ago, Israeli forces ended the division of Jerusalem. The city had been split during the Arab siege of the capital in 1948 and it remained cut in half by an ugly wall as well as by dangerous no-man’s-land zones. The victory in the Six-Day War ended an illegal occupation of the eastern portion of the city as well as the walled Old City by Jordan that had lasted for 19 years but was not recognized by the world. In breaking down the barriers, the Israelis not only reunited the city but opened access to its religious shrines—including the Western Wall and the Temple Mount—which had been off limits for Jews during the Jordanian occupation. But as Israelis celebrated what is known as “Jerusalem Day” today, support for the push to reinstate the division of the city in the international community has grown. Every Middle East peace plan proposed in the last 15 years, including the three Israeli offers of statehood that the Palestinians turned down, included a new partition of Jerusalem even though both sides remain murky about how that could be accomplished without reinstating the warlike atmosphere that prevailed before June 1967.

But for those who believe that such a partition is essential to peace, the process by which a city that has grown exponentially in the last five decades, with Jews and Arabs no longer neatly divided by a wall, could be split is merely a matter of details. To fill in the blanks for its readers, Haaretz published a Jerusalem Day feature that provided the answer to the question. Highlighting a complicated scheme put forward by a Jerusalem architectural firm, the paper asserted that most Jerusalemites wouldn’t even notice the difference if their city was re-partitioned. On the surface the plan, which has been funded by a variety of left-wing sources, seems practical if complicated and expensive. But it is not only completely unrealistic; it is based on a fantasy that the real problem in Jerusalem is primarily one of engineering, aesthetics, and logistics. Like every other element of other utopian peace plans that are sold to both the Israeli and Western publics as the solution that “everybody knows” must eventually happen, this vision of Jerusalem ignores the fundamental problem of peace: the fact that the Palestinians don’t want it.

The conceit of the divided Jerusalem scheme is that the old “green line” that once cut through the city as well as the West Bank is alive and well. Since the second intifada, Jews largely avoid Arab sectors of the city and Arabs do the same in Jewish sections. The only problem then is how to “soften” the appearance of a division so as to codify the reality of a divided city without actually reinstating the ugly and perilous military fortifications that served as the front lines for the Arab-Israeli wars from 1949 to 1967.

There is some truth to the notion that Jerusalem is currently divided in this manner. But it is a fallacy to assert that it is anything as absolute as the authors of the plan and their media cheerleaders claim. Contrary to the notion popularized by the terminology used by the media, there is no real east or west Jerusalem. The city is built on hills with much of the “eastern” section actually in the north and south where Jewish neighborhoods on the other side of the green line have existed for over 40 years. The idea that this can all be easily sorted out by handing out the Jewish sections to Israel and the Arab ones to “Palestine” won’t work.

It is a falsehood to assert that 40 percent of Jerusalemites can’t vote in municipal elections. Residents of Arab neighborhoods could vote but don’t. If they did participate they would hold real power, but for nationalist reasons they choose to boycott the democratic process and the result is that they have been shortchanged. While current Mayor Nir Barkat opposes division of the city, he has rightly argued that Israel has to do better in serving Arab neighborhoods because with sovereignty comes responsibility. But what the plan’s authors also leave out of the equation is that a division would deprive many of these same Arabs of their employment and health coverage since a great number work on the Israeli side or get their medical treatment there. Will they give that up for Palestine? Just as when the security barrier was erected, many Arabs will clamor to stay on the Israeli side of any divide for obvious reasons.

Left unsaid in the piece is the fact that there are actually a number of interlocked Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. Nor does it explain how the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus (which was isolated as a Jewish enclave during the Jordanian occupation) could be reached from what they propose to be Israeli Jerusalem or how Jerusalemites could access the scenic Sherover/Haas promenade in the city. And those are just a few of the anomalies that go unsolved or unanswered in a scheme that treats transportation patterns and border security as if they were mere blots on the map rather than avoidable facts.

There’s also no mention here about how security in this intricately divided city could be administered. Would Israelis really be prepared to cede the security of their capital to foreign forces? Could peace monitors be relied upon to respect Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish neighborhoods if they become, after peace, the object of a new intifada whose purpose would be to chip away at the rump of the Jewish state?

Nor is there any reason to believe the newly partitioned city would be one in which religious freedom at the holy places would be respected, especially since the Arab side of the new wall will almost certainly be declared a Jew-free zone by the Palestinian Authority and its Hamas allies/antagonists.

Just as important, rather than allowing a city that has grown by leaps and bounds to continue to thrive, a new partition would create more than political barriers. It would strangle the city’s economy, a common fate for all divided cities. That is something that would damage both Jews and Arabs.

But even if we were to concede that all these problems could be somehow miraculously worked out to the satisfaction of all sides, one big obstacle remains to the implementation of this plan: Palestinian cooperation. This is, after all, pretty much the same plan that Ehud Olmert offered to PA leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. Abbas fled the negotiating table rather than be forced to respond to a plan that would have involved recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Compromise is always possible when both sides desire an outcome in which each will get some but not all of what they want. But so long as Palestinian national identity is still inextricably linked with the war on Zionism, no plan, no matter how reasonable sounding, can work.

It is telling that although groups dedicated to co-existence liberally funded the partition plan, there is not one Palestinian Arab architect associated with it. That is not an accident. Had the Palestinians wanted to accept a divided Jerusalem as part of their new state they could have had one in 2000, 2001, 2008, or even this year had they chosen to negotiate seriously with a Netanyahu government that was already prepared to cede most of the West Bank. But they didn’t take it and there’s no indication that they will change their mind anytime soon.

The obstacle to dividing Jerusalem isn’t one of aesthetics or engineering or even the problem of drawing a border in a place that causes the least harm to both sides. It is about a conflict that won’t be resolved until the Palestinians give up their fantasy of eradicating the Jewish state. When that happens, then perhaps utopian designs such as this one will be feasible and Israelis will be willing to give up their rightful to claim to all of their historic capital and share sovereignty. But until then, the only point of such plans is to undermine Jewish claims to the city in a manner that undermines hope for peace.

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