Betty Herschman, director of international relations and advocacy at Ir Amim, Israel’s longest standing NGO focused on Jerusalem within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Last week, the president of the United States fulfilled his campaign promise to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, solidifying that promise by unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Meanwhile, the 300,000 Palestinian permanent residents of the city—citizens of no nation—will continue to live under an increasingly violent state of occupation. Their collective national aspiration to locate the capital of their future state in East Jerusalem has been patently invalidated by Trump’s unilateral declaration while the Israeli right-wing establishment has been further emboldened to expedite their own unilateral plans.
No sooner had Trump done his damage than promoters of a bill to amend the Basic Law on Jerusalem: Capital of Israel had pushed it forward for final readings in the Knesset. The amendment is one of several bills and plans transparently designed to unilaterally and decisively redraw the borders of the city and manipulate the city’s demographic balance back to the 70:30 ratio that has driven Israeli policymaking in Jerusalem since 1967. Together, they represent the first practical move since the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 to implement the de facto annexation of areas in the West Bank to Israel, while at the same time conducting a massive transfer of Palestinians—permanent residents of the city—from Jerusalem.
Trump took pains to clarify that the United States would take no formal position on borders or other final status issues. In fact, by making his statement at a moment when even center-left legislators are introducing plans to separate the Palestinian neighborhoods annexed in 1967—now an integral part of the urban fabric of the city—he has had a pronounced impact on efforts to accomplish that very goal.
At risk are 120,000 Palestinians living within the boundaries of the city but left on the other side of the Separation Barrier. For more than a decade, rampant poverty and municipal neglect have driven them out of the core of East Jerusalem while a mushrooming stock of unregulated but relatively more affordable housing has lured them to even more forsaken neighborhoods. Israel has effectively managed the silent transfer of Palestinians to the neighborhoods beyond the barrier. Now, key lawmakers such as Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and Minister of Education Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) propose to put them under their own “regional authority” outside the municipality of Jerusalem in a last step toward severing these neighborhoods altogether.
The Israeli government could not have done better. Trump’s proclamation legitimized a patient campaign to drive one-third of the Palestinian population from the city and absorb roughly 140,000 West Bank settlers by granting their settlements sub-municipality status and ultimately allowing them to vote in municipal elections. At the same time, according to a public opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research published on December 12, “The American step increases Abbas’s weakness, raises further suspicion concerning the role of regional powers, and increases calls for armed action.” The right wing may be savoring its triumph, but ultimately both the Palestinians and Israelis—certainly in Jerusalem, where the two maintain a delicate balance of daily relations—lose big.