A New Hope in Jerusalem

Abu Aziz Sarah, TED talk (Ryan Lash)Abu Aziz Sarah, TED talk (Ryan Lash)

by Mitchell Plitnick

In May, around the time of the seventieth anniversary of Israel’s creation, the United States plans to move its embassy to Jerusalem. The event may be greeted with an unfortunate bang or a dangerous whimper. In either case, scheduling the move to coincide with not only the seventieth Israeli Independence Day but also the seventieth anniversary of the naqba (catastrophe) for Palestinians shows the careless disregard the Trump administration has for the risk of violence and for legitimate Palestinian sensitivities.

If in May Jerusalem becomes a flashpoint and an obstacle to a better future for Israelis and Palestinians, October may bring a Jerusalem that offers the first, small ray of hope in the region for a long time. A joint Jewish-Palestinian ticket—headed by Palestinian educator and activist Aziz Abu Sarah and veteran Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin—called Yerushalayim-Al Quds will run a list of candidates for Jerusalem’s municipal elections.

The party’s name says a lot about it, being the Hebrew and Arabic names of the city. Abu Sarah and Baskin brought together a party that plans to run a ticket that is evenly divided between Jews and Palestinians—with Abu Sarah at the top—and evenly divided between men and women in both groups. Baskin, writing in the Jerusalem Post, expressed high hopes for what this ticket could accomplish:

Yerushalayim-Al Quds can be the surprise of the elections and the best thing that has happened in Jerusalem and for Jerusalem. Yerushalayim-Al Quds will create the shared Jerusalem that celebrates the diversity and recognizes each other as belonging in Jerusalem and to Jerusalem. No population group or community will be invisible anymore in Jerusalem.

In this day and age, such lofty dreams have become nearly extinct.

Palestinians of East Jerusalem are mostly residents, without Israeli citizenship. That reality has a long and complicated history. Israel formally opened a channel for citizenship to Jerusalem’s Palestinian population. But very few applied for it—and even fewer were approved—as this would imply recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the whole city. They can still vote in municipal elections, but not for the Knesset. Again, historically most have not done so, as a protest against Israel’s occupation of the city.

But in recent years, that situation has started to change. More Palestinians have voted and more have applied for citizenship. In response, the Times of Israel reported in 2016 that “Israel, which in the decade from 2003 to 2013 denied or delayed about half of the citizenship applications by East Jerusalemites, has more recently been failing to accept almost all of them.”

Even before Yerushalayim-Al Quds appeared, a Hebrew University poll showed a growing eagerness among Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote in municipal elections. With the change in atmosphere, two Palestinian groups in Jerusalem had already declared intentions to run in the 2018 elections. Iyad Bibuah, a Palestinian teacher, registered his party to run in the election but seems to have gained little momentum. Another party, headed by Ramadan Dabash, chairman of the community administration of the Tzur Baher neighborhood in East Jerusalem, also announced its intent to run. But Dabash is a polarizing figure, to say the least. Many Palestinians view him as outside of the mainstream, even as a collaborator, due to his having made gestures—like lobbying the Knesset to honor the “father” of Religious Zionism, Rabbi Avraham Kook, and once even describing himself as a “Likud activist”— that they consider to have bordered on treasonous. It is highly unlikely he would have any significant support.

But Yerushalayim-Al Quds is a very different thing. It is led by known progressive figures. Both Abu Sarah and Baskin have strong reputations in their own communities and have made many connections in the other. They both hold strong, progressive values, and their work reflects a deep-seated idealism coupled with a penetrating, pragmatic analysis.

The fact that it is a joint Jewish-Palestinian list also carries a symbolism that could have real meaning. It could be enough to attract some minority Jewish support. Around 40% of the city’s population, however, is Palestinian. The fate of this ticket will hinge on whether enough of them vote.

The trends point toward much greater Palestinian participation than in the past. Still, there will be resistance. The anti-normalization idea is still very strong among Palestinians. Indeed, in light of the U.S. and Israeli lack of enthusiasm for a two-state solution and an occupation that is growing more restrictive, any hint of accepting anything about Israeli rule is bound to chafe even the most moderate Palestinian.

In that light, the structure of Yerushalayim-Al Quds as a joint party works against it. But in practice, the ideals of the party are what matter, and that’s where the joint nature becomes a great strength in terms of drawing support from both communities and of what the party can do if it becomes a significant presence in the city council. As Baskin points out:

This is our chance—Jerusalem’s residents—Israelis and Palestinians—Jews, Muslims and Christians, believers and non-believers, Mizrahim, Ashkenazim, ultra-Orthodox, Maqdasim (original Palestinian Jerusalemites), villagers, Hebronites, residents of the Old City, residents of Shuafat camp, all neighborhoods in the city—we can together take the fate and the future of Jerusalem in our hands. From Jerusalem will ring the bells of freedom and the message of hope! Jerusalem belongs to us all.

If the vision of Baskin and Abu Sarah is realized, it becomes a path to change the entire fabric of the Israel-Palestine conflict. A shared Jerusalem does what Donald Trump said he did, but in reality can’t do: take Jerusalem off the table, not by handing victory to one side, but by resolving the issue to the benefit of all.

That provides a basis for real discussions—as opposed to the fruitless and frustrating “peace process”— among people of good faith trying to find a way to resolve a conflict that has raged for over a century with no end in sight. It opens doors that were slammed shut by violence and by separation barriers and opens them wider than they’ve ever been. From there, political dialogue could be possible because there is a vision not of “difficult compromises” that each side would have to make, but of how co-existence benefits everyone more than narrow-minded nationalism does.

Jerusalem is not the only city where Arabs and Jews have seats on the city council, nor would this new party be the only Arab-Jewish one in Israel. But making this work in Jerusalem, the city that has been such a flashpoint and a focus of world attention, could be a starting point, especially since this party clearly has aspirations that stretch far beyond the holy city.

Maybe this is all a pipe dream. It certainly sounds too lofty to be conceivable. And even with a significant victory for Yerushalayim-Al Quds, it’s a long path, through a lot of ugly backlash, toward a shared Jerusalem. But, as Baskin writes:

Without finding the way to share Jerusalem, there will never be peace between Israel and Palestine. Just as Jerusalem is the center of the conflict, Jerusalem is also the center of any future peace. The official position of the Palestinians is that west Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and east Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine. Two capitals in Jerusalem—one open, physically undivided city is the foundation of any future Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Two states never could have worked without some form of Jewish-Palestinian co-existence. Whether the ultimate solution is two states, one, or any of the other theories that are out there, a Jerusalem that symbolizes co-existence instead of being a microcosm of the occupation and conflict is a way out of the current impasse of despair.

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Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.

SHOW 3 COMMENTS

3 Comments

  1. Thank you, Mitchell Plitnick for this encouraging article.

    God bless the Peacemakers.
    Let nothing detain you.
    May your numbers increase.

    Blessings,
    Lewis Elbinger

  2. This indeed may be a ray of hope in an area that has been riddled with conflict and a failed peace process that has left many of us disillusioned. Gershon Baskin and Abu Aziz Sara deserve support in their work and hopefully they will both be rewarded by gaining support in the Jerusalem Municipal Elections. Good luck to both these incredible persons and may their list be crowned with success.

  3. I will vote for this party as an East Jerusalem resident. Fantastic for coexistence

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