Israel Pulse

Netanyahu designing new Jerusalem borders

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Article Summary
The Greater Jerusalem bill and the Jerusalem proposal by Minister Zeev Elkin risk angering the Trump administration while laboring on its peace initiative.

On Oct. 29, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation was supposed to approve a new bill. The bill would have mandated that numerous West Bank settlements — including those of the Etzion Bloc (Efrat and others), Givat Zeev and Maale Adumim —– would be annexed to Jerusalem.

This is not to be confused with diplomatic annexation of the territory, and Israeli law would not be imposed on the annexed territories. The annexation is categorized as only “municipal,” and its goal is to add the residents of these settlements, about 150,000 in all, to the pool of voters for elections in the Jerusalem municipality. This was an attempt to alter the changing demographic balance of Israel’s capital city.

The bill is seen as a potentially explosive political hot potato. It was initiated by Knesset Member Yoav Kish (Likud) and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, two of Likud’s most senior ministers. Still, as might have been expected, at the eleventh hour it was decided to postpone the vote in the Ministerial Committee. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source in the environs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that the bill was postponed because of “American pressure.” And indeed, a short time afterward, American sources confirmed that such a bill would not contribute to the atmosphere that the Donald Trump administration is trying to create in the region, and would not assist the efforts being made to renew the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Simultaneously, Netanyahu’s government is advancing another bill, no less controversial than the first, under Zeev Elkin, the minister for Jerusalem affairs. This bill would disconnect Jerusalem from the Arab neighborhoods found outside the separation fence that was erected in the city after the eruption of the second intifada (2000-2005). Here, too, the physical disconnection would not entail diplomatic severance. It would be inconceivable for Israel’s most right-wing government in history to concede territories in the environs of Jerusalem. These neighborhoods would be united within the framework of a new Israeli regional council in which no Jewish-Israeli citizen would live, only Palestinians. Its goal is to complement the first bill discussed in this article: to subtract as many Arab voters as possible from Jerusalem in order to continue to improve the demographic balance for Jews in the capital.

Thus, one hand would add tens of thousands of Jewish voters to Jerusalem and the other hand would remove tens of thousands of Arab-Palestinian voters from Jerusalem — showing us that the Likud is trying to enlarge and minimize Jerusalem at one and the same time. This is, no doubt, a unique Israeli patent: to inflate on one side, and deflate on the other.

These two bills do not fit together with the bill proposed by Knesset member Anat Berko of the Likud and reported about in Al-Monitor on Oct. 2. She suggested that most of the Palestinian neighborhoods be disconnected from Jerusalem and annexed to the Palestinian Authority. Not surprisingly, this bill aroused wall-to-wall opposition in the Likud, and even Netanyahu, who had discussed the bill with Berko a number of times, was forced to renounce it. Now his government is going back to adopting its (traditional) official policy of enlarging Jerusalem as much as possible with Jews, while trying to somehow limit the Arab presence in its sphere.

And all this is going on while the American envoys Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner continue to consolidate the Great American Peace Plan. They are trying to square the circle and stuff inside it Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas in Gaza and the Arab world outside. It has been a long time since this mission appeared to be so hopeless. Yet, with all the talk about peace, Israel has still not yet carried out what Netanyahu promised Trump when the latter visited the region in May, four months after he entered the White House.

Israel then submitted to Trump an “assistance package” for the Palestinians with nine clauses that were supposed to rev up the Palestinian economy and help improve the atmosphere. In fact, the clauses of the assistance package are not really being implemented on the ground and Israel has canceled additional plans to help improve Palestinians' lives. One example is Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman's plan to develop the Palestinian city of Qalqilya (which met fierce objection from Netanyahu’s coalition partners).

Against this background and due to heavy US pressure, Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon met with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah on Oct. 29 to discuss burning issues on the agenda. At the top of the list is the Israeli assistance package to the Palestinians. On the very same day, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas received a delegation of Israelis in his office in Ramallah. Abbas emphasized to them that he, too, is demanding that the Hamas ministers who will be appointed to the unity government must recognize the State of Israel and renounce terror. Thus, in fact, Abbas conformed to the conditions of the international community on the subject (the Quartet principles). He made it clear that whatever Palestinian government rises after the reconciliation would recognize the State of Israel and all the agreements signed with it.

The question is, where does all this lead? The answer is in Trump’s hands. But the chances are high that in the foreseeable future, he will be forced to quarrel with one of the sides. At the moment a clash with the Israeli side seems more logical. Abbas is doing everything he can to comply with the conditions that were presented for renewal of negotiations with Israel, at least in theory. Opposite him is the decision of the Israeli Cabinet not to conduct any kind of negotiations with a “[Palestinian] government reliant on Hamas” — which might be interpreted as a peace refusal stance.

If Trump is truly determined to renew the negotiations and leave a proposal for “the ultimate deal” on the table — which would include a huge transaction between Israel and the entire Arab world — he will have to roll up his sleeves and use force to push Israel into the negotiation room.

As of now, the honeymoon relations between Washington and Jerusalem continue. Israel’s right-wing ministers are still convinced that Trump’s administration is much more accommodating to Israel than Obama’s administration. They never had any expectations of President Barack Obama. The question is, what will happen if and when Trump experiences disappointment and failure with everything connected to the negotiations and places the responsibility on Israel? It was not a big problem for Jerusalem to say “no” to Obama in the eight years that preceded Trump.

The question also is, what will be the fate of those who dare say, or even intimate, “no” to Trump? Netanyahu is not really interested in finding the answer to that question.

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit

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