Netanyahu allies rethink remapping of Jerusalem

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly Cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on Dec 31, 2017.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly Cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on Dec 31, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM (NYTIMES) - Hours after the Israeli Parliament approved new obstacles to a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians, left-wing activists took some solace on Tuesday (Jan 2) in a decision by right-wing lawmakers to jettison one part of their plan.

The surprise move came around 3am, when members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition stripped from a Bill they were about to enact language that would have made it easier to exclude Palestinians from the map of Jerusalem.

The decision was tactical, not philosophical, but left-wing activists hoped it would give them a chance to fight another day.

The provision removed from the Bill would have allowed the municipal map of Jerusalem to be redrawn without a parliamentary vote on the new boundaries. That, in turn, would have smoothed the way for a proposal to exclude from the city several densely populated Palestinian neighbourhoods that are outside the security barrier Israel erected to prevent terrorist attacks.

Coming amid a wave of efforts by members of the coalition to throw new obstacles in the path of a two-state solution, the move cheered supporters of a Palestinian state, who have seen little else to applaud in the weeks since President Donald Trump, reversing US policy, recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Advocates for Palestinian rights and for a two-state solution had worried that the measure would help create what some said would be Israel's first "Bantustans" on the border between Jerusalem and the West Bank - overcrowded communities left to fend for themselves without any political power, either in Israel or under the Palestinian Authority. The reference was to the apartheid South Africa territories.

In dropping the measure, the right wing had precisely the opposite goal: It wants to block a two-state solution by keeping Jerusalem intact and ensuring that parts of it will never be turned over to the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem for their capital.

Naftali Bennett, the Education Minister who leads the right-wing Jewish Home party, said he had changed his stance on the municipal-boundaries language after aggressive lobbying by activists, including David Be'eri, who has led efforts to acquire property from Arabs in East Jerusalem and lease it to Jews.

In an interview, Bennett said the activists had sketched out a plausible chain of events: Under the language they objected to, if a left-wing government were to gain power, it could redraw the Jerusalem map to create a new municipality in East Jerusalem - perhaps named "Al Quds", he said, the Arabic name for Jerusalem.

"Now, it's only a municipal boundary," he said. "But the whole world gets used to it - that there's something else that's Al Quds. And very quickly, the perception would be that Al Quds is not Jerusalem. And then, to do the diplomatic move of severing it and handing it to the PA would be much easier."

"And who would've been the ones who allowed that?" Bennett added. "The right wing. They'd say, 'You're the guys who legislated this.'"

Bennett was a co-sponsor of the Bill that contained the language allowing the Jerusalem map to be redrawn, but he was responsible for a different part of it, which raised the threshold for ratifying any peace deal involving ceding parts of Jerusalem. It requires 80 votes out of 120 in the Knesset, a forbidding super majority.

That part of the Bill was enacted, prompting howls from the left and a broadside from the Palestinian Authority, whose top spokesman said on Tuesday that it amounted to "declaring war on the Palestinian people and their political and religious identity".

The measure on redrawing the Jerusalem city map, by contrast, would have affected only a few areas, like Kufr Aqab and the Shuafat refugee camp, that have been largely abandoned by the city because of concerns for the safety of its employees outside the security barrier.

This has turned them into teeming boomtowns of illegal construction, where estimates say the population has soared to between 70,000 and 150,000 people.

Hagai Agmon-Snir, director of the non-partisan Jerusalem Intercultural Center, said the possibility of excising those areas from the city had set off alarm bells across the political spectrum. "There's a consensus among all Jerusalem activists, right and left, that this is not a good idea, because it's not stable," Agmon-Snir said.

Creating a new local governing body would take years, and in the meantime, the Jerusalem municipality "will not invest a cent there", he said. Before any new local government could get up and running, he said, "Kufr Aqab and Shuafat are sure to collapse".

Yet the idea's main proponent, Ze'ev Elkin, a Likud member who is Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, insisted through a spokesman that he would continue to pursue it. The Bill that was passed requires the Prime Minister to gain approval in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, for any map changes.

Left-wing groups hardly crowed about the mixed result.

"The idea was in the air, it was almost realised, and I don't think it will go away so quickly," said Aviv Tatarsky of Ir Amim, a Jerusalem advocacy group that fought against the entire Bill.

"The peace camp and the Palestinians cannot rely on the goodwill of the Jewish Home party."

And Ronit Sela, a specialist on human rights in the occupied territories for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said she was mystified by the last-minute change in the legislation, but welcomed the chance to lobby against Elkin's idea another day.

"We are up for fighting it," she said, "and if it's in the Knesset we have more tools and it's a longer decision-making process, than if the government just did this and radically changed the lives of so many people."