A Note to Hillary on Jerusalem Disunited

Dear Hillary,

A colleague alerted me to your recent position paper on Israel, with your promise of support for an "undivided Jerusalem." I appreciate the warm feelings, but I admit I was confused by your description of my city. Since you are a careful, wonky candidate, I figured you must have details at your disposal. So this morning I called a Palestinian cabby friend, and together we went looking for the "undivided Jerusalem."

I live in Talpiot, an area that hugs the vanished DMZ that ran through part of the city between 1948 and 1967. The next neighborhood over, East Talpiot, was built after Israel annexed East Jerusalem and a swath of land around it in 1967. East Talpiot fills much of the vanished DMZ. It was part of the massive government effort to move Israeli Jews into the new areas and to erase the armistice line between Israel and Jordan. The apartment blocks sit on wide, tree-lined streets with brick-paved sidewalks. There are municipal playgrounds, and green park benches where the elderly can rest, and speed bumps to make life safer for kids crossing the streets. There is no marker to show where the armistice line once ran. If one drove no further, this might seem like the very vision of a city sewn seamlessly together.

But we drove on, into Jabel Mukaber, the Palestinian neighborhood immediately to the east. The community slopes down the side of a ridge toward a valley. We came in from the top, where a few of the streets have wisps of sidewalks. Further down, sidewalks vanish. School was letting out; a crowd of girls filled a narrow street while school buses tried to nudge their way through. The asphalt, cracked and faded, looked like a mere memory of pavement. Trash lay on the sides of the street and covered a hillside.

Beneath that hill, a walkway was marked off with black police barricades, leading to a checkpoint. Schoolgirls walked past soldiers at the guard booth. The square houses on the other side looked exactly the same as those above. The soldiers told us we couldn't pass; they couldn't tell us why. Across the valley we could see the high gray concrete security wall around Jerusalem. The wall wound into the valley and up toward us and stopped, but a patrol road stretched onward to where we stood, and a temporary fence divided the houses.

The history, Hillary, is this: Israel annexed East Jerusalem very quickly in 1967. The new city limits were drawn in a mad rush. In some places, like this one, they cut through Palestinian villages on their way to becoming neighborhoods. Palestinians living on the Jerusalem side received blue Israeli ID cards and the status of Israeli residents, and had to pay Jerusalem property tax. According to a reliable history of the time, the reason for not imposing citizenship on them was that doing so would have violated international law. (Never mind the legality of the annexation itself.) Those living past the city limits got the orange ID cards of residents of occupied territory. It didn't matter much then; Palestinians from the West Bank could freely enter Israel to work. Those from Jerusalem sometimes built homes beyond the line.

Now Israel is building its security barrier -- fence in the countryside, wall in the city -- to keep out potential terrorists and most other Palestinians from the West Bank. The route, as planned, would slice off the bottom tip of Jabel Mukaber, known as Sheikh Sa'ed. So far, a court battle by residents has stopped construction. But in the meantime, Sheikh Sa'ed is still cut off. To make matters crazier, the barrier route does not quite follow the city limits. A bit of the Sheikh Sa'ed enclave is officially inside Jerusalem. Most is outside. Residents with blue Israeli IDs can pass through the checkpoint. Others need special permits. Their schools and clinics and relatives are inside the city. People from the enclave carry their trash up to the road where we stood for it to be collected by the city. It is not collected frequently enough, and residents sometimes set the dumpsters afire.

This is not the only place where the barrier route runs inside the city limits, and certainly not the only place where it slices through an urban expanse that does not stop at municipal borders. Sheikh Sa'ed is divided itself, and divided from Jabel Mukaber, which is a poor cousin of Jerusalem, part of the city and not part of it. Jabel Mukaber's residents get medical care from Israel's government-backed HMOs, and attend Jerusalem city schools, even if they are short on classrooms. The only playground in the neighborhood, according to Mai Abdo, vice-principal of a local school, turns to mud in winter. But she has friends among teachers in East Talpiot, and helps run a coexistence program in which her pupils and Israeli ones learn together about Abraham, Biblical patriarch and Quranic prophet. The cabby friend who has brought me is a Palestinian who lives in another East Jerusalem neighborhood and spends his days driving on the Jewish side.

Jerusalem, Hillary, is divided by more fault lines than run under California, even if it is also stitched together by livelihoods and water mains and friendships that grow like hardy weeds.

The Israeli consensus that the city must never be divided has broken down. Vice Prime Minister Haim Ramon is reportedly pushing a plan to turn most Arab neighborhoods over to Palestinian rule, even if other members of the ruling Kadima party would rather give up less land in Jerusalem. Your position paper defends a stance that is already spoken of here in past tense, in a tone reserved for the naiveté of youth.

I'd like to believe that what you really mean by "undivided Jerusalem" is what your very closest adviser laid out in his parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian peace at the end of his term as president in January 2001: Jerusalem should be an "open and undivided city" but the capital of two independent states, with Palestinian parts of the city under Palestinian rule. Turning those parameters into reality would require inspired negotiating, with immense American investments of time and prestige, and such investments dried up completely very soon after Bill laid out his vision. As we all know, his successor doesn't do negotiating.

I suspect, however, that you wrote what you did because advisers believe that you need to support an outdated position in order to win Jewish support. Far away as I am, I also suspect that your advisers are giving obsolete counsel. American Jews are even more fed up than other Americans are with the Republicans. In 2006, 87 percent of them voted for Democratic candidates for the House.

Let me suggest a more honest and more honorable position on Israel: The greatest contribution that America can make to Israeli security is to help it reach peace with the Palestinians, and as president you will resume that effort where it was abandoned in 2001. If asked about Jerusalem, say that the sides will have to come to an agreement, and you are committed to help them do so. The Clinton parameters are still a good basis for that. If you don't take this position, I hope that your Democratic rivals do. It would make me more hopeful about the future of my fractured city.

Warmly,

Gershom

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