The End of the Line in Jerusalem

Gali Tibbon/Pool Photo via AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem

In a moment, we'll bring you the latest news from Jerusalem. First, though, a thought experiment. If Israel had a responsible government, how would it have responded to Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital?

Ahead of the decision, responsible Israeli leaders would have found the most off-the-record possible way to explain that this was not the Hanukkah present that Israel needed. A dovish government would have warned of damage to peace efforts. A right-wing government would have seen that U.S. recognition would only thrust Israel's rule of annexed East Jerusalem back on the international agenda. Trump, presumably, would have ignored this warning, as he did others.

After the fact, any sensible Israeli government—even a right-wing but pragmatic one—would have done its best to lay low and let the fuss blow over. It would have seen the sporadic rocket fire from Gaza, the Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank, the reported refusal of the Egyptian government to receive a secret visit from the director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry—and would have tried as hard as possible to let Trump's words hang in the air as an American caprice, not an Israeli one.

OK, that's not how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his cabinet, or his party have responded. I'm sure you're stunned.

Instead, Netanyahu and his allies spent the end of the old year and the start of the new showing they feel liberated from the need even to pay lip-service to peace with the Palestinians.

Exhibit A: The Knesset. Before dawn on Tuesday, the parliament passed an amendment to the quasi-constitutional law on Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Under the amendment, any change in the territory under Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem requires approval by 80 out 120 members of parliament. This applies to all the land that Israel unilaterally annexed in June 1967 after conquering East Jerusalem. Since any realistic chance of a two-state agreement with the Palestinians depends on dividing sovereignty in the city, henceforth a peace deal will depend on support of a two-thirds supermajority in the Knesset. A two-thirds majority on anything in the Knesset is contrary to the laws of nature. On this issue, it's less likely than the sun rising in the west, in a green sky.

There's a catch: The law itself can be amended again by 61 votes—a majority of the Knesset's members. That's harder to reach than the standard majority of those actually present and voting, but clearly easier than getting 80 votes.

So there's two ways to read the law. They complement each other. One is that the present coalition has put one more obstacle in front of any future government that wants to sign a peace deal. First such a government will have to re-amend the law, and only then get parliament to ratify the treaty.

The second is that this is mainly declarative. It's the equivalent of a giant tweet by every member of the coalition: “Israel rejects a two-state accord. Don't even talk to us about it.” Declarations matter, though, especially aggressive ones.

Exhibit B: The Likud central committee passed a resolution Sunday night requiring its elected officials to work for annexation of the West Bank—or, in a narrower reading of the resolution, all Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The narrower reading actually shows the true intent: annex the settlements; leave Palestinian communities subject to Israeli rule without making the Palestinians citizens. It's a call to transform de facto occupation into de jure apartheid. I normally avoid that word as an inaccurate description of what's wrong with the occupation, but the Likud's proposed move would make it accurate.

The resolution doesn't actually have any binding force. But it passed unanimously, and most of the Likud cabinet members were present. Netanyahu himself was absent, but his sway over the central committee is well known. There's no sign he made any effort to block the vote or defeat the resolution. Ex-minister Gideon Saar, a Netanyahu rival and presumed contender to succeed him, gave a speech calling for “ending any question mark over the settlements.”

Again, this is purely declarative. It's unlikely that the Likud government will annex the settlements anytime soon. The present policy of letting settlers enjoy the full rights of Israeli citizens without annexation is more comfortable. But the resolution does remove the question mark from the meaning of that policy, at least as far as the Likud is concerned.

Exhibit C: Last week Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz of the Likud declared that a train station for the new high-speed Tel Aviv-Jerusalem line would be built in the Old City of Jerusalem—and would be named for Donald Trump.

This is absurd in so many ways, even before we get to the name.

The new rail line, under construction for years, is near completion. It has been built with a single Jerusalem station, at the western edge of the city. You'll be able to travel from Tel Aviv in a just half an hour—and then it will take you roughly forever to get anywhere in Jerusalem.

Very belatedly, the Transportation Ministry began studying options for extending the line. The logical place for a second station is in the center of the city, where it will link best with other mass transportation.

Katz wants the line to go further, crossing the pre-1967 border into the Old City, with the final station close to the Jewish holy site of the Western Wall. That would put it far from the city's light rail, away from bus lines, hard to access by cars.

Katz's plan shows that he—like many Israelis who swear allegiance to the symbol of Jerusalem—is totally uninterested in the actual city's wellbeing. As Daniel Seidemann, a leading expert on the political issues of Jerusalem, says, “Only someone who doesn't give a shit about Jerusalem could propose this.”

To avoid the standard problem of construction in Jerusalem—uncovering archaeological sites—the idea is to build the line in tunnel deep below any ancient remains. That would be fine if people could teleport themselves from the surface to the tunnel. Since they can't, the final station would have to be built through all the archaeological levels of old Jerusalem, with construction stopping as each is excavated.

Besides that, the Western Wall is next to the Temple Mount, also known as Al-Aqsa. In 1996, when Israel opened a much smaller tunnel next to Al-Aqsa, it aroused Muslim fears and set off a dress rehearsal for the Second Intifada. The location would also assert permanent Israeli control of the holy places. For Katz, that's a feature. But the international uproar could dwarf the reaction to Trump's declaration.

The proposal hasn't yet been submitted to planning authorities. The practical considerations are likely to kill it at that stage. If the idea goes forward, the station will be completed long after Trump's presidency. Katz knows all this. He, too, was letting loose with a mega-tweet.

But he did make the subtext of the other declarations explicit. He, Netanyahu and the Likud are saying, “Thank you, Mr. Trump. You've killed peace prospects and let us do whatever we want in Jerusalem and the West Bank.”

It's not America's fault that Israel has elected a government that seems determined to erase the vision of a democratic Israel living at peace with the Palestinians. In the past, though, the United States imposed some restraint—not enough, but some—on the Israeli right's policies and kept alive some hope for the future. In the age of Trump and American retreat, it no longer does. 

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