Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said this week that conditions were not right for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and offered his new plan for steps Israel should take now to manage the situation. These steps include cutting off Israel and Jerusalem from a number of Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. In his words,
“Then we’ll re-unite the true Jerusalem without hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who will remain on the other side of the barrier. Issawiya is not and won’t be part of Israel’s eternal capital. Neither is the refugee camp in Shoafat. We’ll separate from them. We’ll build a wall. Terrorists won’t have access to Jews. Those who want to work and make a living rather than stabbing people – we’ll leave those for the consideration of the defense establishment.”
Herzog is not the first Israeli politician to try to score political points with a suggestion of this nature. For Herzog and others, it seems like a win-win proposal: Israelis don’t care about these areas, so won’t mind giving them up, and Israel can claim that by doing so they are being generous to the Palestinians. However, on closer inspection the proposal is extremely problematic, for a number of reasons.
If it were implemented, it would have a devastating political impact. It would be seen by Palestinians, with good reason, not as an interim step that is consistent with a long-term commitment to a two-state solution. Rather, it would be understood as a step by Israel to deny the Palestinians’ claim to a future Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and to deny their connection to the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount (notably, the proposal would result in 180,000 more Palestinians losing access to the site), by changing the demographic balance of Jerusalem and consolidate Israel’s claim to all the parts of East Jerusalem that it cares about. As a result, it would only further discredit and delegitimize Palestinians who still support negotiations and two states, and who oppose violence. At a time when it is imperative to move towards ending occupation, this would be a blatant move to consolidate that same occupation, sending a clear message from Israel to the Palestinians (and the world): we alone determine things, not negotiations or coordination.
If it were implemented, it would have a devastating humanitarian impact. If implemented, this proposal would create a humanitarian disaster of unprecedented proportions in East Jerusalem, on both sides of the barrier. By cutting residents off from their families and from workplaces, schools, and places of worship, it would deprive them of livelihood, education, health care, and welfare benefits. It would also exacerbate the existing state of limbo in the areas of East Jerusalem that are already cut off by Israel’s separation barrier and, for all intents and purposes, existing in a void in which neither Israel nor the PA exercises authority or takes responsibility for the welfare of the residents, meaning the areas exist in a political and law-and-order vacuum. Moreover, based on what we saw in the past with the construction of the barrier, we can expect to see a stampede by Palestinian residents of the effected neighborhoods, as they seek to move into a more areas of East Jerusalem that are not at risk of being cut off, or into Israel proper. But this would be only during the approval process – since this is not only about a barrier, but about changing the residency rights. Those who move during the transition will likely become “illegals.”
If it were implemented, it would be have a counter-productive security impact. The proposal is based on the laughable notion that telling the 180,000 Palestinians they’re being cut off from Jerusalem – from their jobs, their schools, their families, their places of worship – in order to make the city more Jewish, is going to provide Israel with more security. The current violence is being carried out by individuals, acting on their own and fueled by hopelessness, desperation. This hopelessness, desperation, and rage are driven by a number of factors, all of which will be significantly exacerbated by this move, inflaming the situation, feeding more rage and inducing more individuals to undertake violent actions.
- The current uprising is in large part driven by the conviction, especially among Palestinian youth, that they have no hope and no future. This conviction will only be validated by this move in the eyes of Palestinians living on both sides of the barrier, increasing motivations to violence (and, indeed, is already validated by the mere fact that it is being proposed, particularly by the leader of Israel’s supposed left-wing party).
- The current uprising is likewise driven by the absence of any political horizon to end the occupation. This move will only deepen the sense that there will never be a political horizon, fueling desperation and violence.
- The current uprising is likewise driven by the conclusion that, for Israel (and perhaps most of the world), Palestinian lives don’t matter. This move will only confirm that conclusions, in effect saying to Palestinians, “we Israelis chewed on you for 49 years and now we are going to spit you out, and in both cases, we don’t give a damn what happens to you.” In doing so, it will only increase this feeling of outrage and desperation – on both sides of the barrier – and feed violence.
- The uprising is driven, too, by the Palestinians’ sense that Jerusalem is becoming an exclusionary Jewish city, with an ever-more emasculated minority. This move will enhance the sense of threat – including the sense of threat to the Haram Al Sharif, to which hundreds of thousands more Palestinians would, under this move, be denied access.
It would be virtually impossible to implement. The combination of domestic and international obstacles renders this proposal dead-on-arrival, making it little more than political grandstanding on Herzog’s part. This proposal is not only about changing the route of the barrier but necessarily implies a change in the jurisdiction over the areas cut off from Jerusalem and the residency rights of those who reside in these areas. It cannot be otherwise: Israel can’t just cut these residents out of the city by a wall and allow them to maintain their residency, because Israel would be in no position to continue providing services in their place of residence. Therefore, to carry it out would require changing Jerusalem borders, which could only be done by amending Israel’s Basic Law – and such an amendment could only be passed with a supermajority of 61 votes in the Knesset. Transferring authority (i.e. policing, civilian) over these territories and changing the status of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem would also require a vote. Under any circumstances, this would be hard to pull off domestically; given the current very right-wing Knesset, it would likely be impossible. And under any circumstances, such moves would draw a strong international response; under current circumstances, the response, and potential consequences, would be even stronger.
Even if not implemented, the proposal itself has a devastating political impact. The fact that this is a proposal made by “moderate Israel” itself sends extremely damaging political and security messages to the Palestinians – the very same ones that would be sent if it were implemented (detailed above). In this way, the proposal itself will fan the flames of violence in Jerusalem. Moreover, it sends the Palestinians – and the world – an even more problematic message: getting rid of Netanyahu may not change anything, as his spirit has thoroughly infected “moderate Israel” to such a great extent that even if Netanyahu is replaced by a “moderate” prime minister, Netanyahu-like proposals, like this one, should be expected. Indeed, specifically with respect to Herzog, this proposal destroys any credibility Herzog his in the past (however weak it might already have been) had as partner for the Palestinians and the world in negotiating a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.