Jun 14 2010
There was a glum mood in the van as we set off from our hotel in downtown Jerusalem for a day of travel around the holy city. “You’ve heard the news?” asked our unusually chagrined travel guide. “What a screw-up. The politicians couldn’t at least wait a few days for Joe Biden to leave?”
Israel’s foreign ministry and press people were in full damage-control mode that morning. The blowout of USA-Israeli relations over the announcement of a new settlement project in East Jerusalem was on every TV screen, every radio show and (as I found out later, scanning my RSS feeds on my iPhone) seemingly every blog in the universe. A lowly bureaucrat in the Israeli civil service had announced approval for the Ramat Shlomo development project and now Israeli’s PM was getting hit over the head by a representative from Israel’s best friend, the USA, for sabotaging the “peace process.”
It was embarrassing. Even those who were genetically defensive about bad press for Israel were pissed. On the eve of a USA-Israel summit, the Israelis had poked their best friend in the eye.
The timing was the worst part; most people presumed that if the American delegation had simply stopped in for some photo ops and backroom diplomacy and left, and the announcement about Ramat Shlomo had been made a week later, with Biden and his buddies safely ensconced in Washington, there would have been no story.
A rumor had it that the announcement was a accident by a bureaucrat. After all, the development proposal had been in the works for years, long before Biden had even come into the White House on the Obama ticket. And Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t be expected to know what was on tap for municipal zoning approvals any more than Canadian PM Stephen Harper might know about every new condo building going up in Ottawa. Still, it looked bad.
The spotlight was on Israel, now, and would be for months afterwards. The story making the rounds was that Israel was engaging in a sort of gradual, piecemeal ethnic cleansing (semantically putting Israelis in the same camp as Serbian soldiers who massacred their ethnic minorities in the 1990s) by building homes for Jews in East Jerusalem while holding up building permits for Palestinians in the same part of the city.
That morning, we drove past the area of the proposed settlement. As we looked on the green hillside, one salient fact came through: there were no buildings there. There was a Jewish neighborhood already adjacent to the spot. But the nearest Arab-Israeli neighborhood was way over on the other side of a valley. The new settlement was essentially an organic expansion of an existing community.
It’s worth noting here that there used to be more mixed neighborhoods in Jerusalem where Jewish and Arab Israelis mixed more or less as they would in any other diverse Western city – though this is much rarer now, since the days of the terror campaigns of the 1990s.
In any case, the view from the Israeli side and the Palestinian-international media perspective were pretty much irreconcilable. While many Israelis do criticize settlements in the West Bank, those same critics will put an asterisk next to East Jerusalem. “To us, it’s like dividing East Toronto and West Toronto – it’s still Toronto,” says our guide. “And it’s still Canada.”
This contrasts starkly with the view from outside Israel; that building in East Jerusalem compounds an illegal annexation. But this is where it gets tricky.
First of all, when Palestinians talk of East Jerusalem as their future capital, one should note that there isn’t really any historical precedent for that. And if you go by the argument that the Palestinians are only reclaiming their most historic religious sites located in East Jerusalem, then the Jewish Israeli claim is even stronger; after all, Muslims built the Al Aqsa mosque on top of the remains of the old Temple.
As well, there’s certainly no doubt about who built Jerusalem in the first place. Besides, if Palestinians (and the rest of the world) state that conquest does not confer legitimacy in the 21st century, then why apply an immoral standard to the conquest of this city in 638 AD?
The future status of a united or divided Jerusalem will be decided in part by history, but hopefully to a larger extent by modern standards of what successful cities look like.
What’s being demanded right now on the Palestinian side is essentially an ethnically homogenous Muslim capital free of Jews and other pesky minorities (while West Jerusalem and other majority-Jewish Israeli cities are expected to fully absorb a Palestinian demographic flood at some point in the future). This would probably require a completely separate municipal infrastructure, as East Jerusalem becomes a no-go zone for Jews.
A comparable situation in Canada would be if the Musqueam nation on Canada’s west coast essentially demanded a wholesale evacuation of all non-First Nations residents from the prime real estate in the Kitsilano neighborhood of Vancouver. As the Musqueam moved into the vacated houses, they would declare a restored national capital – in a territory that had never had anything of the sort. Except that in this ridiculous situation, the Jews of Jerusalem would actually have a stronger case to stay put, being an indigenous group alongside the Palestinians.
What is to become of this divided city? Municipal rezoning and development projects that are routine in any other city in the world will continue to annoy most Muslims, international media and human rights industry professionals. But transforming East Jerusalem into a Jew-free city state-let hardly seems an improvement. For now the Eternal City will simply plod along as the Indeterminate City.