U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared that Israel's plans to build additional apartment houses in Gilo, a southern Jerusalem neighborhood beyond the Green Line, are partly responsible for the current impasse in the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
This indicates profound American misunderstanding of the situation, because Gilo, with more than 40,000 residents, is to be part of Israel under any agreement. Moreover, the peace negotiations have little chance of succeeding as long as the Palestinians demand to partition Jerusalem.
The Palestinians and most of the international community fail to understand that the past offer by Ehud Barak to divide Jerusalem at the Camp David summit in 2000, which was repeated by Ehud Olmert in 2007, was divorced from the strong attachment a majority of Israelis feel towards the eternal city. This incredible concession has continually lacked the necessary domestic political support. Strategic considerations also dictate holding on to a greater Jerusalem.
Israeli public opinion is committed to maintaining the status quo in Jerusalem. All polls show that over two-thirds of Israelis feel that Jerusalem should remain the united capital of Israel while only 20 percent favor its division and becoming the capital of both a Jewish state and a future Palestinian state. The group showing the most support (almost 80 percent) for Jerusalem remaining the undivided capital is the 18- to 24-year-old age cohort. Of this group, the strongest support was expressed by ultra-Orthodox and religious Israelis, the fastest-growing segments in the Jewish population. Asked whether Israel should relinquish its control over the Temple Mount, the holiest place for Jews, over 70 percent of Israelis disagree.
After Barak's offer in 2000, more than 250,000 people demonstrated against his violation of the Jerusalem taboo, in the largest rally ever held in Israel. The electrifying hold of Jerusalem on the Jewish psyche is not sufficiently appreciated. Moreover, the Orthodox injunction against visiting the Temple Mount has eroded, allowing a growing number of Israelis to have the mystical experience of meeting the metaphysical past and future. Such feelings are politically potent, foreclosing the possibility that Israelis will sit idly and watch a transfer of sovereignty in Jerusalem.
In 2000, the division of Jerusalem lacked the necessary majority in the Knesset, and Barak's coalition disintegrated (for other reasons as well). Similarly, in 2008, Olmert experienced coalition difficulties because he placed Jerusalem on the negotiators' agenda. No Israeli government is likely to survive concessions in Jerusalem under the current political constellation, which is unlikely to change. If elections are held in the near future, the strength of the opposition to any concessions in Jerusalem will only grow.
Jerusalem's importance to the Jews is not only historical and religious; the city also holds strategic importance in controlling the only highway from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River Valley, along which military forces can move with little interference from Arab population concentrations. Jerusalem is the linchpin for erecting a security zone along the Jordan Rift Valley.
If Israel wants to maintain a defensible border in the east, it needs to secure the east-west axis from the coast to the Jordan Valley, via an undivided Jerusalem. Keeping Greater Jerusalem, which includes the settlement blocs that President George W. Bush recognized as realities that must be accommodated in a future settlement, is a strategic imperative. Arguments that ignore the immense potential for political upheaval east of the Jordan River and the fluctuating nature of military technology in order to minimize the military importance of Jerusalem and its central role in the eastern line of defense for Israel are opportunistic. Designing stable defensible borders in accordance with current, but transient, technological state-of-the-art and political circumstances is strategically foolish. The turmoil in the past few years in the Arab world only indicates the need for great caution.
Finally, the partition of Jerusalem is simply a bad idea when the prevailing zeitgeist dictates uniting cities such as Berlin, Belfast or Nicosia. Why should Jerusalem be different? Jews have held a majority in the city for the past 150 years, while Jerusalem has never been the capital of any Arab or Muslim political entity.
Moreover, the Arab minority in the city has shown its preference for living under Israeli rule, as many have moved to the Israeli side of the security barrier being built around Jerusalem. Polls show clearly that a large majority of Jerusalem Arabs oppose being subject to Palestinian rule. Their choice is reasonable, as Jerusalem offers the quality of life of a modern Western city, while only a few kilometers away, a Third World standard of living, chaos and religious intolerance are the norm. An undivided Jerusalem is the best guarantee for a better life for all Jerusalemites.
In sum, the unreasonable Palestinian demand for dividing Jerusalem is an obstacle for a better future.
Professor Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.