JERUSALEM — Now that Special Envoy George Mitchell is shuttling between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in search of the two-state solution to their seemingly endless conflict, this is the right time to set the record straight on the key issue of these so-called proximity talks: the current and future status of Jerusalem.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has warned that if housing construction in Jerusalem is not halted he will stop dealing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; that would be a diplomatic setback for the Obama administration.
Actually, Abbas referred only to Jerusalem’s former Jordanian sector whose population was nearly 100 percent Palestinian Arab when it fell to the Israeli army in the Six-Day War of 1967.
Jews, including several who live in the United States, are funding the building activity in question, and the apartments going up have been earmarked for Israeli Jews or fellow-Jews from abroad. It is meant to establish a steadily increasing Jewish presence in quarters such as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, which were exclusively Arab when these projects got under way.
These are not new “settlements,” as cited disapprovingly by President Obama, but new and unwelcome (by the Palestinian Jerusalemites) apartments for Jewish newcomers. The political purpose of this construction is transparent — to create a demographic fait-accompli, making it impossible to hand over those quarters to the Palestinian Authority if only because they no longer will be “judenrein.”
But even if this technique, which is popularly known in the United States as blockbusting, is not exported to the Middle East, and if the quarters or neighborhoods in question remain ethnically monolithic, that will not necessarily open the way for them to be transferred from Israel, which formally annexed them in 1967, to the projected Palestinian state.
One reason for this is that the local Arabs, most of whom declined Israeli citizenship, prefer the advantages of being legal residents of Israel — personal freedom and access to the city’s Jewish quarters and the rest of Israel — to the uncertainty of life in an undemocratic entity even if it is nominally Palestinian.
In any case, Netanyahu did not promise Presidents Obama and Abbas that he would halt new housing projects in the city.
His argument, and that of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, is ingenuine, however. They have declared that residents of the unified city, Arabs as well as Jews, can build anywhere within its urban limits, and that Israel cannot impose a ban on Jewish housing starts because that would be discriminatory.
But the truth is that Palestinian Arabs cannot build or even buy homes in Jerusalem’s Jewish quarters because the Israel Land Authority, which controls that real estate, is legally committed to providing homes on its terrain to Jews only.
Meanwhile, the influx of Jews into the once exclusively Arab quarters has generated high-profile political demonstrations in which left-wing Israelis and foreigners who sympathize with the Palestinians engage in provocative confrontations with the Israeli police. These often degenerate into violence and generate arrests.
Israel would be better off without them, at least from the standpoint of the state’s international image. The right wing activists who believe that they can and should assert themselves regardless of the feelings of the local Palestinians among whom they insist on living are a negative factor. They are oblivious to the property claims their Arab neighbors have to homes that were abandoned on the other side of the city, in such quarters as Talbieh and Qatamon, in 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence.
Nor do they care about the feelings of Palestinian families who found alternate accommodations in quarters such as Sheikh Jarrah and who were forced to evacuate them 62 years later for failing to pay rent. The newly displaced Palestinians ask, rhetorically, about the rent for their former homes, which Jews have occupied since they left.
In short, the wisest course for the would-be peacemakers — American, Palestinian and Israeli alike — is to leave the status quo as it is for the time being and not insist, as does Abbas, on putting Jerusalem at the top of the proximity talks’ agenda. It should be tackled last, if or after other issues such as boundaries, mutual security and the post-1967 Jewish settlements in the West Bank are resolved.
(Jay Bushinsky an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at Jay@actcom.co.il.)