As the emotional heart of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Jerusalem offers a critical challenge to negotiators. Yet the Holy City will become an even more difficult issue to tackle if hard-line Israeli opponents to the peace process succeed in their current campaign to extend the functional borders of Jerusalem to three West Bank Arab villages: Abu Dis, Azariya and Suwahare. If they stop the Israeli government from parting with areas that are clearly outside of Jerusalem's city limits, there is little reason for Palestinians to believe that Israel will honor its commitment to negotiate seriously over arrangements for the city itself.
The political and arbitrary nature of Jerusalem's current borders offers negotiators a chance to find creative solutions for dealing with Jerusalem in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. After Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 War, it expanded the municipal boundaries of East Jerusalem to about 10 times what they were under Jordanian control, based on security and political considerations. While these expanded borders brought Israeli control to the holiest sites in Judaism, they also brought significant swaths of Palestinian areas of the West Bank into the municipality--but not these three villages. Today, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live in densely packed Jerusalem neighborhoods and refugee camps in which Israeli Jews almost never set foot.
Developing practical ways to address the national, religious and municipal needs of Israeli and Palestinian Jerusalemites was never an easy task. Yet peace opponents are trying to make it even more difficult for reasons that have nothing to do with Jerusalem or these villages.
The three Arab villages are now subject to joint Palestinian-Israeli control. It is the long-standing understanding of peace negotiators that such areas will eventually come under complete Palestinian jurisdiction.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak recently floated the possibility of giving complete control of these villages to the Palestinian Authority now in exchange for deferring a final transfer of West Bank territory that is required under the interim phase of the Oslo process. He noted that Israelis "have no reason under a final peace deal to annex another 50,000 or 40,000 Palestinians to Jerusalem. We prayed for 2,000 years, three times a day for Jerusalem. We have always prayed toward Jerusalem and have never directed any prayer toward Azariya and Abu Dis."
Haim Ramon, the cabinet minister responsible for Jerusalem, put it even more bluntly. "This isn't Jerusalem," he said. "For, if this had been Jerusalem, we wouldn't have left Abu Dis outside of Jerusalem's sovereign boundaries. We annexed in 1967 everything we thought was Jerusalem, even a little more."
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not object to the transfer of Abu Dis to the Palestinians, nor were these three villages labeled "security areas" on former Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon's "national interests map."
But the absence of previous Israeli claims to the three Arab villages has not stopped hard-liners from manipulating their potential transfer, raising the concern that allowing the Palestinian Authority to within a "stone's throw" from the suburbs of Jerusalem is an "ominous development."
Regrettably, several right-of-center political leaders have bought into this argument, and Barak has wavered in the face of their opposition.
He shouldn't. The logic behind the hard-liners' argument is flawed and could be fatal to reaching a final peace agreement.
First, the three Arab villages are indeed a "stone's throw" from Jerusalem neighborhoods--but these neighborhoods are Palestinian, not Jewish.
Second, Israel committed itself under the Oslo Accords to negotiate the final status of Jerusalem with the Palestinians. If the prime minister can't handle domestic pressure regarding outlying villages now, how will he be able to handle much more intense pressure regarding Jerusalem later?
Third, if it is impossible to transfer the Arab villages that lie outside of Jerusalem because of political problems, how can the Israeli government negotiate over other areas that lie close to the villages themselves or land abutting these additional territories?
Finally, the demographic realities of Jerusalem require both Israelis and Palestinians to make serious compromises. A recent study from the Ir Shalem (Whole City) project and the Israeli Peace Now movement found that, within a 12-mile radius from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the demographic balance is 49% Israeli and 51% Palestinian, if both the areas under complete Palestinian jurisdiction and Israeli security control are considered.
Only in Israeli right-wing fantasies is Jerusalem a monolithic bastion of Jews. Israelis and Palestinians have significant populations in the city. Unless Barak holds firm against the hard-liners now, hopes for forging a truly unified Jerusalem that accommodates both Israeli and Palestinian core interests will be destroyed.