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"Jerusalem: Going for the Gold" by Jo-Ann Mort

Published in Dissent Magazine

The mantra of the current Israeli government that Jerusalem is "the eternal, undivided capital of the Jewish people" does nothing to resolve the stalemate over the city's status. Nor does saying these words make Jerusalem truly undivided. The truth is that the city is divided both socially and culturally between west and east. And, as important, it is plagued by problems like poverty and sectarian division both within the Jewish community itself and on the Palestinian side--problems largely ignored because of the city's uncertain status.

Any move toward a two-state solution requires Jews in the United States and Israel to acknowledge that when they speak of Jerusalem they are referring to an idealized religious city. Israeli singer Naomi Shemer, in her famous ode to the city, "Jerusalem of Gold," yearns for the Temple Mount and a direct route from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, not for any particular set of municipal boundaries. None of the polling done in the Jewish community--certainly not in the United States--makes clear to what entity precisely the questioner is referring. All the world's eyes are upon the city, but its dimensions are unclear. Jerusalem, the city on the hill, doesn't shine like John Winthrop's city in "brotherly affection." Far from it.

Still, the gleam of Jerusalem can still be seen if (a big if) sober minds prevail, and if we learn to look at the city as it actually exists. Dennis Ross, longtime peace negotiator and currently a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, was exactly right when he described the Clinton team's position during the failed 2000 Camp David negotiations in his book The Missing Peace: "We took a more conceptual tack. Jerusalem would be described as being three cities in one. It was a practical city that had to be governed and managed on a day-to-day basis; it was a holy city; holy to the world, holy to the three monotheistic religions, home to more than fifty-seven holy sites in the Old City alone; and it was a political city....the logic was to forge understandings on practical and functional ways to manage the city before tackling the harder questions."

Jewish tourists in Jerusalem almost never make their way to the east, except to go shopping inside the walls of the Old City, and increasingly they venture only into the Jewish Quarter, which is fast expanding into the Muslim and the tiny Christian quarters. When tourists visit Jerusalem, whether from the east or west, they visit their own holy places within the Old City walls; rarely does one ethnic or religious group think about the other's neighborhoods.

To American Jews, Jerusalem exists more like a "Disneyland for grownups," as an American rabbi friend of mine once quipped. Indeed, American Jews descend on Jerusalem as if it were a theme park; they walk within the Old City walls; visit the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem; and stay in hotels filled with like-minded tourists; they treat the city as if it were a collection of monuments, but pay less attention to the living city that Jerusalem currently struggles to be.

Jewish Israelis almost never go beyond the Old City, certainly not to the far-out areas within the municipal border--large Palestinian villages such as Beit Hanina, a town with more than 27,000 people in it, just five kilometers from Ramallah--or even to the nearer Wadi Al Joz, Shuafat, or Sheikh Jarrah.

This reality strikes me each year when I visit Israel, partly because, although I am Jewish, I always stay in East Jerusalem. It's not a political statement; I just enjoy being in a different part of the city. And it opens an easier route to travel on to Ramallah, which, before the Israeli security wall was built, was an extension of East Jerusalem life, commercially, culturally, and politically.

I can sit with Palestinian friends in an outdoor hotel bar in East Jerusalem and be joined by Jewish friends from elsewhere in Israel, with both Hebrew and Arabic flowing in conversations around us. This same scene probably could not be replicated on the other side of the city. My closest Palestinian friend, who hails from a prominent East Jerusalem family that dates back over eight hundred years, feels appreciably more comfortable in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv than in West Jerusalem. He was so unfamiliar with the west side of the city that he had to ask me if he was required to put money in the parking meters on Saturday (Muslims observe Friday, not Saturday, as a religious day, which is reflected in the civic culture of East Jerusalem).

FORTY-THREE YEARS after "reunification," the cultural divide is tremendous, and points of reference for daily life are almost completely different on the two sides of the city, even among educated and secular groups. East Jerusalemites read different newspapers; watch different television stations; and if they need public transportation, use different bus lines than the residents of the western, mostly Jewish part of the city. Palestinian neighborhoods continue to be ill-served by the "united" municipality--trash collection, road paving, and street signs are all inadequate. There are two downtowns in Jerusalem, east and west. East Jerusalemites are more likely to travel out of the country by crossing the Allenby Bridge into Jordan than by driving the clogged Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway to Ben Gurion Airport. Simply put, their life is directed to the east, while most Israelis' lives are directed westward.

For most Jews and Palestinians, there is a seam, effectively a wall, between east and west--Highway 60; the Talpiot-Atarot route or "Road 1" in Jerusalem, the central north-south artery. Known inside Jerusalem as Haim Bar-Lev Boulevard, it runs between Mea Shearim, the American Colony, and French Hill, bypassing the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat with a bridge that leads to Beit Hanina and the post-1967 Jewish settlements of Pisgat Ze'ev and Neve Yaakov, ending near Qalandia, a village and refugee camp inside the Palestinian-controlled West Bank on the outskirts of Ramallah (the site of a mammoth border terminal and security apparatus secured by the Israeli Army and a concrete wall).

There are at least two blueprints for resolving the conflict over the city, both of which are doubtless on the desks of the White House team dealing with Israel/Palestine. Despite its failure, former President Bill Clinton's 2001 proposal is still considered by most people to be the necessary framework for any reasonable settlement. The Geneva Initiative, an extra-parliamentary agreement that was organized in 2003 by former Knesset member Yossi Beilin, follows the same outline but provides more detail. The Initiative was signed by a long list of Israeli and Palestinian personalities, including leaders from the older Fatah group around President Mahmoud Abbas and from the Young Fatah faction close to Marwan Barghouti, currently in jail in Israel. I was told on several occasions by both Israeli and Palestinian signatories that Barghouti approved the document's intent and outline.

Although Arafat was unwilling to sign any agreement, the fact is that no Palestinian leaders will survive if they accept less than this basic outline. Taking this reality into account, the Geneva Initiative's recently published appendix draws a detailed map of two cities: Yerushalayim and Al Quds. The largely Palestinian neighborhoods of Shuafat and Sheikh Jarrah are included in Al Quds, and the western part of the city is included in Yerushalayim, along with Mount Scopus and the mixed neighborhood of French Hill.

THE NEW GENEVA recommendations suggest a unique way to divide the city along Highway 60, creating a "binational roadway" with crossing points for pedestrians and transport combined with landscaped areas at each crossing. The largest of these would be at the French Hill-Shuafat Junction, already a large interchange, and would include a conference/meeting area in between the two border checkpoints, a link to public transportation, a shopping hub and green area. At least two pedestrian crossings would be set up along the route.

In the (very tentative) negotiations so far, there has been recognition, if not actual agreement, that villages and neighborhoods like Beit Hanina and Shuafat will become part of a Palestinian Jerusalem. Sheikh Jarrah, a thoroughly Palestinian neighborhood where the most prominent Palestinian families--the Husseinis, Nashashibis, Nusseibeihs, and Khalidis--have lived (some since the seventh century) is however a fault line neighborhood due to its proximity to the center of West Jerusalem. That is why Israeli settlers have made it a key to their program, as in their recent effort to move religious Jews into the former Husseini-owned Shepherd Hotel on the edge of Sheikh Jarrah. But even with the egregious attempts by settlers and their patrons to buy up homes in East Jerusalem, the truth is that Israel would have to do something quite horrifying to erase Palestinian life in East Jerusalem.

But time for resolving the conflict is running out. According to the pro-Zionist peace and advocacy organization, Ir Amin, in the beginning of 2009 approximately 2,000 Israeli settlers were living in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem--primarily in the historic district I have just described. Plans are for the building of an additional 150 housing units that could settle another 750 people in strategic areas. In addition, plans are advancing for Jewish community facilities like synagogues and ritual baths there.

It's no accident that the settler movement is building in these areas, to thicken the Jewish population and make a two-state solution more difficult. As Ir Amin's Daniel Seidemann points out, "A political border that will allow for a contiguous Yerushalayim on the one hand, and Al Quds, on the other, is still possible but in great jeopardy. Additional settlement activity will create such a patchwork--and in a matter of a year or the current pace--as to make a border impossible."

Private bodies, such as the Elad and Ateret Cohanim associations, which raise money in the United States, carry out most of this settlement activity. This strategy has been coordinated and facilitated not only by national agencies inside Israel but also by the Jerusalem Municipality. In fact, since Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat took office in 2008, he has made it his policy to expedite planning grants for Jewish settlers while simultaneously ordering housing demolitions in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians who cannot get permission from the city to build resort to illegal construction. Barkat, a secular high tech tycoon who decided to stake his mayoralty on challenging Haredi (ultra-orthodox) hegemony over the city, spent much of the 2009 summer warring with the Haredim over keeping a parking garage near the Jaffa Gate open on Saturday. But he has been an unyielding hawk on the Palestinian side of the street.

ONE TRUISM of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that stalemate leads to a flare up, an intifada, or even a war. This is no less true in the Old City, where this past autumn violence escalated along the al-Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound, fueled by Islamic and Jewish ultra-religious leaders. There is probably no real estate more important to the ultimate resolution of Jerusalem than this compound.

Both the Clinton and Geneva recommendations call for an open Old City with a careful eye toward its actual control. Geneva offers the most detailed scenario, mapping out entrances from Israel into this area from the Jaffa Gate and the Dung Gate, the two most heavily used Israeli/Jewish entrances at the moment, and Palestinian entrances from St. Stephen's Gate and the Damascus Gate. Just as most Jews don't travel to urban East Jerusalem, so too, most Jews don't exit or enter the Old City through these latter two. I used St. Stephen's Gate this past summer with some Palestinian friends and found myself in a completely foreign corner of East Jerusalem that easily could have doubled for Ramallah, with no visible signs in Hebrew and an informal transportation system known only to Palestinian residents on that side of the city.

The Geneva plans call for a multinational presence to monitor, verify, and assist in maintaining the openness of the old city; there would also be a security and conservation unit to maintain safety and upkeep. An ultimate goal would be to develop the area as a major cultural hub that would make the idealized city real--a center of free worship for the world's three major religions. Israeli soldiers and police would not be left to handle crowd control by themselves; an international regiment acceptable to both sides, with an endowment from donors around the world, would diffuse tensions.

Ultimately, and ironically, a resolution to the status of Jerusalem that accommodates both Jews and Palestinians could be the only thing that offers the less holy parts of the city a chance to rise out of their contemporary urban ills. According to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, at the end of 2008, over one-third of Jerusalem's families lived below the poverty line, and an exodus of secular and moderately religious families and young singles and married couples from the city continues. Twenty-three percent of Jewish families and 67 percent of Arab families are defined as poor. Among children, the numbers are higher: 48 percent of Jews and 74 percent of Arabs. (The Palestinian population continues to grow at a faster rate than the Jewish population--3 percent a year versus 1 percent.)

Jewish Jerusalem has a serious problem with the continuing influx of Haredim or ultra-Orthodox Jews to the city, where the school-age cohort today is 60 percent Haredim, who study in their own yeshivas, and only 40 percent non-Haredi children, who study in state schools. Most of the poverty in the Jewish sector is directly related to the Haredim lifestyle--the unwillingness of their men to work, though they are entirely willing to take welfare from a state they won't recognize (until the Messiah comes). Some of the Arab poverty is also lifestyle-related: women don't work outside the home in many Muslim families.

There are religious tensions among Palestinians also, between Islamists and more secular Muslims, as well as between Christians and Muslims. No serious attention is being paid to the poverty or the discontent, allowing both to ferment. Were East Jerusalem to regain its historic economic lifeline to Ramallah (cut off when the wall was built), it could prosper as the cultural and economic center it once was--and should be--for Palestinians.

Resolving the conflict could also mean that serious attention would be paid to the city's infrastructure--that is, to the cities' infrastructures. One intriguing recommendation from the Geneva Initiative is to form two Jerusalem municipalities and a Jerusalem Co-ordination and Development Committee (JCDC) to oversee cooperation and coordination between them. This body would include an equal number of representatives from Palestine and Israel and would ensure that all the residents of Jerusalem benefit from infrastructural development and city services, and it would also promote economic growth and encourage cross-community dialogue. Nothing like this exists today in a "united" Jerusalem.

There will never be a lasting agreement between Israel and the Palestinians unless Israel yields in some fashion on Jerusalem, acknowledging the city as a capital for two states and two peoples. Holiness and politics must yield to pragmatism, the eternal city to the everyday. This is incredibly difficult even for the most talented political leaders, and there is a clear deficit of leadership on both sides. Still, one day, with a two-state solution, two capitals befitting Israel and Palestine could emerge, with a shared historic and religious center that enjoys worldwide recognition--and peace for years to come.
Jo-Ann Mort, an officer of Americans for Peace Now, is also co-author of Our Hearts Invented a Place:Can Kibbutzim Survie in Today's Israel and  has written about and reported on Israeli-Palestinian issues for Foreign Policy, Prospect, the Chicago Tribune, the American Prospect, and elsewhere.