Would Israel Agree to Divide Jerusalem?

Netanyahu thinking of splitting Jerusalem?

Ali Ghraib at Think Progress (and reposted at LobeLog) has argued that Netanyahu has turned indecisive about whether the Israeli Prime Minister would agree to divide Jerusalem in a final status deal with the Palestinians. Netanyahu appeared on Charlie Rose two days ago and hinted that the final status of Jerusalem is negotiable:

NETANYAHU: I want Jerusalem a united city for sure. But that’s the way I go — These are not preconditions for negotiations. They’re positions in the negotiations. The final positions come out after a negotiation. I don’t think it makes sense, and I think it’s just not wise, it’s even silly, to come forward and say well I’ll offer this percent, you know, with a decimal point –


NETANYAHU: Of land. That’s what the negotiations are for.

This “softer-hard-line” (to borrow Ghraib’s term) is clearly at odds with the ‘harder-hard-line’ that Netanyahu typically takes. The Prime Minister’s party – and certainly the more extremist groups in his coalition – are very hostile to the idea of allowing Jerusalem to be negotiated. Netanyahu has typically rejected the division of the Holy City as well. From Ghraib:

In the speeches he mentions in the clip, Netanyahu indicates that he will not accept a divided Jerusalem in any peace deal. At Bar-Ilan University in June 2009,Netanyahu said in a “permanent agreement,” one of Israel’s “needs” was “Jerusalem remaining the united capital of Israel.” In the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, on May 16, 2011, Netanyahu said he was guided by the “principle” of a united Jerusalem.

It should come as no coincidence that Netanyahu potentially more appeasing as he tries to woo the Palestinians back to negotiations and away from the UN (despite recently announcing the construction of another 1,100 settler homes and suggesting that another settlement freeze is unlikely.) While Netanyahu’s true stance regarding Jerusalem may remain unclear, there are several reasons to believe that the willingness of the Prime Minister to negotiate Jerusalem will not matter.

  1. Negotiations with the Palestinian Authority are unlikely to begin anytime soon. Should Abbas decide to drop his much publicized UN bid (unlikely considering the political cost of doing so) or even partake in parallel tracks through the UN and direct negotiations, the PA will undoubtedly require a settlement freeze before coming to the table. The negotiations of 2010 have shown the PA unwilling, justifiably, to negotiate with an Israeli government who continuously is taking Palestinian land. As mentioned above, Netanyahu’s implication that another freeze is unlikely coupled with the announcement of more settlement construction should completely inhibit negotiations.
  2. Yet should that bridge be crossed, the final status of Jerusalem will likely be one of the last issues to be negotiated. In other words, other issues will likely end negotiations before Abbas and Netanyahu have time to discuss the division of the city. Netanyahu has been adamant in rejecting the premise that a future Palestinian state be based on 1967 borders, repeatedly stating that such borders are indefensible. Furthermore, it is possible that negotiations over the rights of natural resources and the Right of Return tear negotiations apart before Jerusalem is discussed.
  3. Should the unthinkable occur and Abbas and Netanyahu are able to agree on a peace plan that would divide Jerusalem, the Israeli public would need to agree through a referendum in order for the deal to be finalized. In 2010 the Knesset passed a highly controversial bill that requires a national referendum in order to cede any territory through negotiations. According to polls, Israelis are becoming less willing to divide the Holy City; in 2007, 58% of Israeli Jews were willing to make concessions on Jerusalem in exchange for peace, but 66% were against splitting the city in 2011. Moreover, 95% of the Likud party (Netanyahu’s party) opposes dividing the city. While there are certainly irregularities surrounding the poll numbers (the framing of the question and the exact implications of a hypothetical peace, for example) there is certainly enough doubt to recognize the possibility of such a referendum being rejected by the Israeli public.

Netanyahu surely knows the odds of negotiations with Abbas and the PA resulting in the division of Jerusalem (near zero.) Thus his appearance on Charlie Rose and his adoption of the ‘softer-hard-line’ is likely based on the assumption that Jerusalem would not be divided.

Furthermore, the Prime Minister’s target audience was not Israelis or Palestinians, but Americans. Netanyahu’s appearance on Charlie Rose was an effort to present himself in a more favorable light after the embarrassment at the UN last week. Palestinian President Abbas was able to paint Netanyahu as an obstacle to peace and was rewarded with enthusiastic standing ovations from most of the world’s leaders. By implying that Jerusalem could be negotiated, Netanyahu was attempting to rid himself of the title of rejectionist.

There is little reason to believe that Netanyahu would actually contemplate dividing Jerusalem in negotiations with Abbas. to do so would be to go against nearly everything he has said in his political career, bring down his government, and possibly end his tenure as Prime Minister. While the rest of the world does not accept Israel’s unilateral annexation of Jerusalem (in 1980) reading too much into Netanyahu’s implications on Charlie Rose would be a mistake.

Photo from John Batchelor


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