Israel and the Europeans: On a Course to Conflict Over Jerusalem

By Orly Noy, Ir Amim's Spokesperson

A month after Prime Minister Netanyahu announced a limited "freeze" on construction in Israeli-controlled Palestinian territory, it appears that his action will not end international pressure on Israel. True, the United States welcomed the announcement and attempted to solicit positive responses from other members of the Quartet. But outside the United States, Netanyahu's belated response--described by many commentators within Israel as half-hearted--has not had the same effect. Indeed, Israel appears to be on a collision course with several European states and the newly-enhanced European Union.

One indication of the deepening tensions between Israel and Europe came with the Swedish initiative to declare Jerusalem the capital of both Palestine and Israel, thus laying the ground for the city's re-partition. Intensive lobbying by Israeli leaders and diplomats resulted in a softening of the European position. Thus, the resolution adopted by the foreign ministers of the European Union on December 12 states that, "if there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states." While insisting on Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine as well as Israel, the ministers accepted that the final status of Jerusalem must be determined through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Another sign of the new direction European diplomacy seems to be taking toward the question of Jerusalem was evident on December 16, when Catherine Ashton used her first speech as the European Union's Minister of Foreign Affairs to criticize Israel for its policies of house demolitions, evictions of Palestinian residents, and the separation wall. "East Jerusalem is occupied territory, together with the West Bank," she declared.

While these events unfolded in Brussels and other European capitals, another signal of Europe's disapproval of Israel was revealed in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem-based consuls of several European countries issued a highly critical and comprehensive report on Israel's policies in East Jerusalem. (It should be remembered that, because they reject Israel's unilateral annexation of Jerusalem, all of Israel's diplomatic partners keep their embassies in Tel Aviv and their consulates in East Jerusalem, which mainly serve the Palestinian population.)

The report covers a wide array of questions, from Israel's long range strategic and demographic goals to its ongoing practices. It documents unresolved and long-standing problems, like the poor state of infrastructure in East Jerusalem and the low number of building permits issued to Palestinian residents of the city. In addition, it highlights a dangerous new trend of using physical and demographic barriers to isolate East Jerusalem from the Palestinian population in the rest of the West Bank.

One element in this new trend--the plans for hundreds of new residential units in Gilo--has recently come under criticism from the US, UN and other international actors. In response, Israel has argued that construction in Israeli neighborhoods in Jerusalem is a purely domestic issue. But the European consuls' report exposes the political implications of the new construction plans. It shows that the much discussed plan for Gilo's expansion is only one in series of plans for new and expanded neighborhoods to the east, west and south of Gilo. These plans include the expansion of Har Homa and the new neighborhoods of Giv'at Ya'el and Giv'at ha-Matos. Together, these new residential areas will connect the Israeli neighborhoods of South-East Jerusalem to Gush Etzion and, at the same time, drive an Israeli wedge between the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. As the European consuls point out, the new construction undermines the possibility of an agreed settlement of the question of Jerusalem and, therefore, the possibility of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The report also criticizes Israeli actions to change the demographic balance in Jerusalem. The most egregious of these is Israel's separation wall. Its winding course places over 50,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem on the other side of the wall, thus cutting them off from the city's urban space and along with it, their places of work, their children's schools, and the medical and social services to which they are entitled under Israel's law.

The three policies highlighted in the consuls' report--the exclusion of a large number of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem from their own city, the severe restrictions on residential building in Palestinian neighborhoods, and the plans for large scale construction of Israeli neighborhoods on the city's parameters--demonstrate the true demographic aspirations of the Israeli government with regard to Jerusalem.

If past experience is any guide, both government and the public in Israel will react to the consuls' report with anger and derision. But they would be well advised to consider it seriously. The conclusions of the report contain a recommendation to work for a European recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state, even if at present such recognition must remain a purely symbolic act. The recommendation represents the changing approach of many international actors. They are increasingly doubtful about the negotiating process and its chances for success, and as a result, they tend to accept the need for unilateral steps, at least at the declarative level. If allowed to continue, these new trends will undermine Israel's capacity to shape the region's political reality.

It is in Israel's interest to re-engage with the negotiating process and to prevent international acceptance of unilateral steps of the kind recommended in the European consuls' report. This does not require radical concessions at this time; rather, it requires that Israel forgo its own unilateral actions in East Jerusalem, such as the plans for large scale residential construction, or the steady incursion of Israeli settlers into the Palestinian neighborhoods encircling the Old City. This would give a chance for renewed diplomatic negotiations, where both sides can present their needs and demands. Allowing political initiative to move from the negotiating table to unilateral steps, whether by the European states or by Israel, poses a critical threat to Israel's most vital interests in Jerusalem.