Jerusalem’s undying ethnic strife deepens urban divide

Worldfocus: How would you characterize the current situation in Jerusalem?

Hussein Ibish: Jerusalem is the most divided city in the world. Israelis in West Jerusalem and the Jewish quarter feel like normal citizens of the Israeli state living under Israeli law. For them, life is very normal.

But East Jerusalem is more than 80 percent Arab. The situation is similar to that in the rest of the occupied territory, but it’s starker in Jerusalem because they’re living in such proximity. Insofar as an analogy to “apartheid” applies, this is more stark in Jerusalem than anywhere else, where separate and unequal is almost universal.

Most Jerusalem Arabs are not in effect subjects of Israeli law but practically live under martial law. In many cases, they’re technically residents of Israel — but not citizens. They can’t vote in national elections. And they generally don’t vote in municipal elections. Jerusalem is the flash point for the conflict.

Worldfocus: Why can’t the leaders on both sides reach a rational agreement about sharing the city?

Hussein Ibish: The cultural, religious and political importance of the holy places means that Jerusalem is central to both populations. Both sides are becoming increasingly influenced by right-wing religious rhetoric. The conflict is transforming from an ethnic struggle over land and power in a small area — into a religious struggle between bearded fanatics on both sides about the will of God and holy places.

The Old City of Jerusalem requires a creative solution and the unique formula like the Vatican City. It can’t be the exclusive preserve of any of the religious or ethnic groups. A unique formula has to be found. But it’s not beyond the wit of man to come up with a solution for this, because the national interests of all parties require it.

Worldfocus: Are there certain deal-breakers on the issue of Jerusalem?

Hussein Ibish: For the Israeli side, the “right of return” (for Palestinian refugees) is a deal-breaker just like the claim that Jerusalem is the undivided and eternal Israeli capital is for the Palestinians. This kind of rhetoric acts as a political narcotic: it makes people feel good, but it’s extremely damaging.

But when you get into the final status agreement, these are all issues that can be negotiated successfully. Both parties have a stake in making it work. That could keep Jerusalem united and parts of the city jointly administered — although with separate sovereignty. All it takes is political will and some creativity. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’m a skeptical person, but it seems possible to me. It’ll be an unusual arrangement reflecting the unique character of the place.

There are reciprocal bitter pills on the right of return and Jerusalem both sides must swallow in their own existential national interests.

The only serious player really resistant to this idea [to create two capitals in Jerusalem] is the Israeli government, which is trying to prevent Jerusalem from being a topic of discussion in any the final status talks. But Obama made it very clear that the terms of reference need to be clear and precise — and involve security for both parties, borders, refugees and Jerusalem. The U.S. position on Jerusalem is closer to the Palestinian view than to the Israeli one. There is implicit understanding in the U.S. that most of East Jerusalem needs to be the Palestinian capital.

There will also clearly have to be a land swaps. The Palestinian people accept that, and the leadership accepts it. Not every settlement in and around Jerusalem must be evacuate. I don’t mean that the Palestinians will be unwilling to have Israelis [in Palestinian-controlled East Jerusalem] or elsewhere in the Palestinian state. But the Israel government would probably not want to face the crisis of some incident involving Israeli citizens living in newly sovereign Palestinian state, and I think it will be they who push for
evacuation in the event of an agreement.

Both sides should be creative and flexible and Israel should be willing to evacuate settlements that make Palestinian statehood impossible. It’s politically problematic but not impossible. These are painful concessions for both but they are obviously necessary. It’s all about a series of complicated quid pro quos. This is not a menu where you can go through and choose what you want based on your tastes, its a delicate pattern of concessions. It’s also a kaleidoscope. Every time you move the image a little, the whole pattern shifts.

Worldfocus: Do you envision that Jewish Israelis will be able to stay on in the areas that become Palestine in East Jerusalem and the West Bank?

Hussein Ibish: Palestinian citizenship or dual citizenship for them is possible, but I don’t think the Israeli government will allow it in the West Bank, though they might find a way to make it work in East Jerusalem.

An agreement is in the core existential national interest of both parties. Settlements will be evacuated according to a variety of formulae. At least 75,000 [Jewish settlers] will need to be removed. That means perhaps up to 200,000- 300,000 will be staying where they are in the small parts of West Bank such as Ma’ale Adumim that will become part of Israel.

The bottom line is that the Palestinians cannot be denied 22% of Mandatory Palestine — the equivalent of East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. I think they need and deserve that.

Worldfocus: What role will Palestinian Gaza play if it continues to be a separate entity from the Palestinian West Bank?

Hussein Ibish: Gaza has no independent future from the rest of Palestine. The idea of a political status that is separate is completely wrong. Very few people in the Gaza Strip want that. Israel is strategically trying to emphasize these divisions, but it’s not something that will take.

I don’t think we’re looking at a scenario yet where Hamas can really succeed in replacing the PLO. They’re quite far away from that. All they hope to do so is for negotiations to break down. Hamas are weak and isolated — only able to maintain control in Gaza through brute force and oppression. Hamas thrives on chaos, stalemate [in talks] and a rhetoric of confrontation and violence. Their core constituency — at most 13-15 percent of the Palestinian population — believes in the Muslim Brotherhood model. But that’s not really a major political force unless there is no hope for peace.

Worldfocus: How about fresh alternatives to the Fatah-Hamas split?

Hussein Ibish: Salam Fayyad a very serious actor on the scene, yet he’s not a politician. Fatah is a dysfunctional political party but commands major support. The PA could use Fatah’s political authority to facilitate Fayyad’s state-building agenda and technocratic prowess. This is crucial because Fayyad’s plan provides another avenue for progress, change and momentum towards ending both the occupation and the conflict. If 1/20 of Fayyad’s plan could be implemented, there would be a serious transformation of the strategic environment, greatly enhancing Palestinian interests and the prospects for peace.

I think his plan could serve as a crucial augmentation of diplomacy and a parallel track that is constructive, serious and transformational. The biggest threat to it at the moment is the idea of dissolving the PA and going back functioning strictly through the PLO as a diplomatic but not a governing entity. With international financial support and political protection, it would be very difficult for Israel to block this institution-building plan. In short order, this could really change the Palestinian political scene and the strategic environment for the better.