The announcement of significant new Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem has put the spotlight on the city, but the changes it has undergone since 2000, when the parties first negotiated its fate, are far broader and have far deeper roots. Israelis, Palestinians and the international community must adjust their strategies accordingly, or Arab East Jerusalem will continue its perilous decline, with catastrophic consequences for all.
A pair of companion reports from the International Crisis Group describes how East Jerusalem has been altered in recent years, physically, but also socially, politically and emotionally. Extreme Makeover? (I): Israel’s Politics of Land and Faith in East Jerusalem, shows how the combination of Israeli settlement construction around and within East Jerusalem and increased religious activism has raised the costs of any future plan entailing partitioning the city. Extreme Makeover? (II): The Withering of Arab Jerusalem describes how Arab neighbourhoods have wasted away under occupation, disempowered and isolated from the Palestinian body politic as rarely before.
“Two realities are incontrovertible. First, expansion of Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem has raised the political price of partition and thus lowered its likelihood”, says Robert Blecher, Crisis Group’s Arab-Israeli Project Director. “The second, less tangible but equally consequential reality is that changes in Israel and the region have intensified religious and historical claims to the city”.
Since Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak negotiated unsuccessfully on Jerusalem’s status in 2000, the city has experienced deep changes at three distinct levels. At the territorial level, settlements have expanded across the core and periphery of East Jerusalem; they now are on the verge of extending a Jewish continuum from west to east across the entire municipality and beyond – potentially delivering a fatal blow to the two-state solution. In the south, construction of new Jewish settlements threatens to all but envelope certain Arab neighbourhoods. Recent announcements by the Israeli government in response to the Palestinians’ successful bid for a limited upgrade of their status at the UN are particularly alarming in this regard.
Secondly, at the religious level, competing claims to the city and especially to the Holy Esplanade – by both Jewish and Palestinian constituencies – have intensified, making some of the compromises mooted in the past seem increasingly irrelevant. This is all the more significant given the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region, which almost certainly will make it more difficult for Arab leaders to endorse solutions that opponents can denounce as inconsistent with Islamic principles.
Thirdly, at the political level, Palestinian Jerusalemites increasingly are adrift, bereft of representation and lacking resources. East Jerusalem has become a rough and angry place, more and more disconnected from its West Bank hinterland. The default Palestinian strategy since 1967 has been to boycott all voluntary contact with the city’s Israeli administration. This, along with the Oslo Accord’s enforced separation of East Jerusalem from the Palestinian Authority, has resulted in crowded and under-served neighbourhoods, with badly outdated infrastructure and in which Palestinian political life has been virtually eradicated.
“Prospects for meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations currently are dim, and a radical reassessment of the diplomatic process is in order”, says Ofer Zalzberg, Crisis Group Senior Middle East Analyst. “But that is no reason to throw in the towel”. Instead, Israel should halt its settlement construction plans, notably in the especially sensitive area known as E-1; Palestinians should revisit their boycott strategy as a means of reviving political and social life in East Jerusalem; and the international community should both help protect the territorial foundations that will allow a soft-partitioned Jerusalem to serve as the capital for two states and pave the ground for a mutual recognition of religious and historical claims by both Jews and Arabs.
“Jerusalem has changed, even as collective reflection about the city has remained essentially static”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “It is not too early to dust off old proposals, updating them in light of what didn’t work over a decade ago, what has changed since and what might still succeed today”.