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Could Jerusalem get a Palestinian mayor?

Former Minister Haim Ramon explains why his plan for separating from 28 East Jerusalem Palestinian villages responds to the security concerns of Israeli citizens and is not detrimental to dialogue with the Palestinians.
Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stands with Vice Premier Haim Ramon (R) before a Kadima party meeting at the parliament in Jerusalem July 7, 2008. 

“Unless we break away from the villages in East Jerusalem, our capital will become an Arab city with a Palestinian majority. But there’s more. As soon as the Arabs from East Jerusalem exercise their voting rights, Jerusalem’s mayor will be a Palestinian one. I would strongly advise Jews not to rely on them not ever exercising those rights.” Presenting that equation in an interview with Al-Monitor, former Minister Haim Ramon will try to relay his plan to the general public in a bid to mobilize them and “save Jewish Jerusalem.” This is also the name of the movement Ramon launched earlier in February together with other public figures, some with a security background. The movement’s overriding objective is to apply pressure on the Israeli government to unilaterally disengage from 28 villages in East Jerusalem by amending the “Basic Law:  Jerusalem, Capital of Israel,” aka Jerusalem Basic Law. Among the people who support the move are retired generals Ami Ayalon, Amos Yaron and Amiram Levin as well as retired police commissioners Elik Ron and Aryeh Amit.

Despite being nonpartisan, the movement’s underlying tenets express a centrist, pragmatic political outlook. It is fashioned after former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria in 2005. In other words, it seeks to do away with the Israeli-Palestinian status quo by taking unilateral action. The lone-attacker intifada, one of whose key factors are the Palestinian villages in East Jerusalem, should serve as tailwind for the movement to engage the Israeli public at large.

After a tumultuous career that started in the Labor Party and culminated in Kadima — the centrist party that had been his dream and which he co-founded — Ramon left the world of politics in 2009. Upon Kadima’s establishment in November 2005, he believed that a centrist political platform could lead to a historic diplomatic arrangement resulting in the partition of the land into two states. Seeing his dream fading, he is now trying to make a difference from the outside.

The full text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  How is your plan supposed to save Jewish Jerusalem?

Ramon:  First, we need to recall the original sin. Intoxicated by its victory at the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel annexed 28 West Bank Palestinian villages that historically had never been part of Jerusalem, such as Jabel Mukaber and the Shufat refugee camp. Almost 50 years later, what we ended up with is a reality whereby out of a city of 800,000 residents, 300,000 are Palestinians. In other words, close to 40% of Jerusalem’s permanent residents are Palestinians. Furthermore, in the demographics of children up to 18, 60% are Palestinians, most of whom attend the Palestinian educational system that’s funded by the Israeli taxpayer. If I were to use [Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu’s rhetoric, I would be saying that the Israeli taxpayer is funding incitement in the Palestinian Authority’s [PA] schools, which includes the children of Palestinian Jerusalem. We all agree that the security reality in Jerusalem is intolerable. What we are saying is that there is a solution to this unacceptable situation. The Jerusalem Basic Law must be amended in a way that those Palestinian villages with some 200,000 residents will be cut off from Jerusalem and be returned to their original status in the West Bank. This is where areas A and B will be formed [Area A being under Palestinian security control and Area B under Israeli security control].

Al-Monitor:  Will this materialize in a unilateral move?

Ramon:  Their annexation was a unilateral move too. Those people were never asked whether they wanted to be residents of East Jerusalem, and most of them never asked for it. They didn’t take as much as a single act on their own to remain in Jerusalem. I’m only talking about the permanent residents that were willy-nilly [forcefully] annexed and will be returned, albeit not necessarily willy-nilly. After all, President Mahmoud Abbas demands that these villages be returned to the Palestinian state. This 1967 annexation has been adhered to by all of Israel’s governments over the years. The only one who did something about it was Ariel Sharon, who set up a fence from [Palestinian West Bank village of] Kalandia to the southern part of the Shufat refugee camp. When I served in his Cabinet, I demanded that he continue building the fence. He refused to do so and told me, “Right now, I’m not going to confront the radical right,” because he was busy with the disengagement from Gaza. The point is that even Sharon didn’t amend the Jerusalem Basic Law and the 50,000 Palestinians he kept outside the fence continue to enjoy all the benefits that permanent residents do.

Al-Monitor:  The Israeli public was sorely disappointed with the disengagement from Gaza, which was a unilateral move. How will you convince it that this [the "save Jerusalem plan"] is the right thing to do?

Ramon:  The plan we’re proposing has three advantages. It improves security in the sense that there will be a fence and that the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] will be able to operate in those villages. Today, Jabel Mukaber is exactly like Tel Aviv in the sense that the IDF cannot operate there. The second aspect is demographics. From a situation of 60% Jews and 40% Palestinians, we will move to a ratio of 80% Jews and 20% Palestinians. And third, the government will be saving some 2 to 3 billion shekels [approx. $500-$750 million] that it can invest in more vital spheres. Israelis need to understand that they’re financing social security benefits, full health services, as well as welfare and educational services in the villages of East Jerusalem. As minister of Jerusalem affairs, I started talking about it. It was then that I realized the extent of the absurdity. Today I understand it even more so.

Al Monitor:  And how will you explain to the world such a radical move that weakens the PA and perhaps strengthens Hamas?

Ramon:  I’m not throwing the residents of East Jerusalem under the bus. They will be part and parcel of the PA. Hamas? I’m not aware that it is present in [the Palestinian town of] Abu Dis. These are right-wing arguments that the radical left has adopted. Those villages will be part of the PA. Why would Hamas go there instead of Nablus? What’s the difference? There will be no difference. Why is there no Hamas presence in [the Palestinian city of] al-Eizariya? Because the IDF is in control there and because of the PA. The PA will fight Hamas as it does across the West Bank, and it will find it easier to do so. You need to realize that currently the PA is unable to operate in Shufat, which has become a no-man’s-land. We’re not going in there because the police are afraid. The military is prohibited from going in. The PA can’t go in either because it’s not its territory. According to our plan, these areas will finally have a landlord.

The claim that Hamas will take over is nonsense voiced by radical right-wingers who want [Israel] to keep staying there. What I understand much less is why the radical left is opposed to the plan. On the other hand, the radical left was also opposed to the separation fence and the pullout from Gaza. Had we listened to those people, we would have been without a fence today and we would have still been controlling the Gaza Strip. I can tell you that according to the polls we conducted, our plan enjoys a large majority: 70% of the public support it. Of the 30% that are opposed to it, two-thirds are the radical right and another third is the radical left, which apparently cares about the Palestinians and is less interested in the Jews. I can also say that many Likud voters support this move. We’re talking about huge numbers of supporters.

Al-Monitor:  How will you explain to the public that this is not the partition of Jerusalem, as the right claims it is?

Ramon:  What we’re talking about is saving Jerusalem. I’m not cutting off the Temple Mount, the Old City or the Holy Basin. What embodies the true essence of Jerusalem stays that way. 100,000 Palestinians will remain in the city. I believe that the public knows what’s good for it. My explanation consists of three things that the Jewish public is in favor of: It doesn’t like giving money to Arabs, it wants its state to be Jewish and it wants to have security. If our plan doesn’t go through, Jerusalem will become an Arab city with a Palestinian majority. Moreover, if the Palestinians stop being stupid [as they boycott the municipal elections], Jerusalem’s next mayor won’t be [incumbent Mayor] Nir Barkat — he will be a Palestinian. Once they decide to take part in the elections, [Jerusalem] will have a Palestinian mayor.

Al-Monitor:  The chair of the Zionist Camp, Isaac "Buji" Herzog, has recently presented his plan to separate from the villages in East Jerusalem. What’s the difference between his plan and yours?

Ramon:  The problem is that Herzog adopted it in a warped way, because he doesn’t have the guts to go the whole hog. He doesn’t say that the Jerusalem Basic Law — which is the key element — needs to be changed. What he talks about is separation and a fence. He is throwing slogans into the air without elaborating. The right thing to do is to come before the Knesset tomorrow morning and propose to amend the Jerusalem Basic Law. The only positive aspect in all of this is that the Labor Party has finally started addressing diplomatic issues instead of just dealing with having more assistants in kindergartens. After two election campaigns during which they thought that by focusing on the salaries of senior officials and kindergarten assistants they would rise to power, they finally realized that they also need to tackle diplomatic topics. By contrast to them, we are an apolitical movement, so Likud supporters can join us as well. You can support a movement to save Jerusalem and still root for Bibi, and vice versa. What we’re saying is that we need to do away with the status quo or else we’ll lose the Jewish majority in Jerusalem, and down the line we’ll lose the [Jewish] majority in the state. Our interest is to have two states or else we will first become a binational state, which will then become an Arab state.

Al-Monitor:  Does the plan herald your return to politics?

Ramon:  I’m really not into that. And most of the people who set up the movement with me do not aspire to become Knesset members or ministers.

Al-Monitor:  How do you react to Akiva Eldar’s remark in Al-Monitor to the effect that this movement is out to save your political career that came crashing down following your conviction of an indecent act with a servicewoman in 2007?

Ramon:  Not only does this remark not have a grain of truth, but it is actually meant to malign me in the eyes of those who are unfamiliar with the facts — mainly figures and officials outside Israel who read Al-Monitor. After all, anyone who is versed in Israeli politics, knows that in 2007, just a few weeks after my trial ended, I returned to the Cabinet table as vice prime minister. I served in that capacity until Netanyahu’s government was formed in 2009. In its ruling, the court allowed me to continue to serve as a Knesset member. The High Court of Justice asserted that I should be allowed to fulfill my role in the government since I was not morally flawed. Subsequently, I was re-elected to the Knesset, but when it became apparent that Kadima would not be forming the government and would not be part of it, I decided to resign from the Knesset, where I had served for 26 straight years. Pursuant to a proposal of then Kadima’s chairwoman Tzipi Livni, I was elected as chairperson of the Kadima Council. In 2012, when Shaul Mofaz was elected Kadima’s chairman, I decided to resign. I did that partly because I realized that Kadima’s political role had run its course. Nevertheless, I continue to appear before state-run, political and public bodies and to write in the daily press about important topics on Israel’s national agenda.

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