The brouhaha over Israel’s recent settlement announcements faded as suddenly as it emerged. After the United Nations General Assembly vote on November 29, 2012 that granted Palestine non-member observer status, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized an aggressive push in and around East Jerusalem. Construction plans, some of which already were on the fast track, were further accelerated and thousands of new housing units were approved, both to deter the Palestinian leadership from taking further steps in the international arena and as an unsuccessful election gambit to shore up his right flank. Within weeks, the bureaucracy reverted to a plodding pace, partly because the brouhaha had served its purpose, partly because of the quick and relatively forceful international response.
International condemnations of Israeli settlement activity are often pro forma. Not this time. The United States and European Union have been sensitive to these particular plans for nearly a decade already because they are seen to pose potentially insurmountable obstacles to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The most provocative project in question — a development in the area known as E-1, an approximately 4.5 square mile zone east of Jerusalem that stretches to the settlement of Maale Adumim — would all but separate the putative Palestinian capital from its Arab hinterland and foreclose the possibility of suturing the West Bank’s urban continuum.
A similar though somewhat less threatening plan targets south Jerusalem. Its centerpiece is Givat HaMatos, the first new settlement in Jerusalem since Har Homa was founded on the lands of Jabal Abu Ghneim in 1997. It will form the final link in a chain that extends a Jewish residential presence across the city’s width, isolating the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa, which also would be bisected by a new road to accommodate settler traffic. Like E-1, it would rupture or at least force a deviation in the West Bank’s urban fabric.
These settlements, many experts and diplomats argue, could put an end to partitioning the city, as suggested by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2000, such that the vast majority of Jerusalem’s Jews wind up in Israel and its Arabs in Palestine. This led European states to quickly and forcefully condemn the Israeli announcements, as did the United States in weaker language, decrying them as fatal blows to the viability of a Palestinian capital and therefore to a Palestinian state.
Moving ahead with these plans certainly would make a bad situation worse, but alarmist forecasts of the imminent demise of Palestinian viability can distract attention from the immense problems already at hand. True, settlement expansion would render dividing the city more difficult by raising the political cost to any future Israeli prime minister who might contemplate it. As it stands today, however, the amount of political capital such a decision would require already is enormous; the willingness to expend it is non-existent; and given political trends, the chances that it materializes are miniscule. In this sense, for the international community to focus on possible territorial futures diverts attention from current political realities. The same logic applies to the Arab neighborhoods, which today are sad, angry, and failing in nearly every sense. When they were occupied by Israel in 1967, they constituted a coherent urban entity; four and a half decades later, they are no longer "viable" in the sense of being able to grow or develop autonomously.
No less important, it is hard to imagine that, given the plasticity of the notion of viability, any particular development could spell its definitive end. Viability exists in the realm of the technical, not the political, and therefore is amenable to practical solutions. If E-1 threatens to cut Arab Jerusalem off from the West Bank, or to force travelers on an unrealistic detour, one could always depress a road, build a bridge, or otherwise secure passage for Arabs traversing what Israel considers its sovereign territory; the same logic applies elsewhere in the West Bank as well. The notion of viability turns what Palestinians see as a matter of liberation into a matter of development, subordinating self-determination and sovereignty to expert intervention. In this sense, adopting viability — which does not have a natural Arabic equivalent and is translated through a clumsy neologism — as the standard of what is necessary could constrain political rights: Palestine theoretically could be viable yet lack fundamental attributes of statehood.
Even if the international community were to mobilize in the name of viability to protect Arab Jerusalem, one should be realistic about what that pressure would achieve. Over time, in the absence of an overall diplomatic settlement, Israeli actors, governmental and non-governmental, likely will find ways to chip away at constraints, circumvent pressure, and incrementally change reality on the ground. U.S. and European incentives — and determination — to maintain pressure might well gradually abate. Washington especially will be reluctant to spend limited political capital on something that — by blocking rather than producing an outcome — has no visible, immediate reward, involves constant monitoring and hectoring, and inevitably would provoke tensions (in some cases entailing a domestic political cost) with an ally.
The bleakness of the diplomatic horizon should lead the international community to expand its political repertoire. As opposed to focusing virtually all attention on preventing adverse developments, it also should push for positive changes today. A key place to start would be housing, the lack of which, for both Arabs and Jews (though for very different reasons), is among the biggest urban challenges.
Of the myriad forms of disadvantage and discrimination that Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem face, housing is at or near the top. Since 1967 no new Palestinian neighborhoods have been established; the urban master plan restricts Palestinian building to 13 percent of the city, much of which is already covered with chaotic, unregulated sprawl. This is despite the quadrupling of the Palestinian population, which today constitutes 36 percent of Jerusalem’s population. Low availability, high rents, and poor services have pushed some Arab residents into nearby Jewish settlements and particularly Pisgat Zeev, presenting the Palestinian Liberation of Organization (PLO) with a quandary: authorizing Palestinians to live there would seem to confer legitimacy on them, but an advisor to the group acknowledged to me that with housing so precarious and the PLO unable to offer any solution whatsoever, the organization cannot afford to condemn it. It remains silent on this like on other issues, abdicating responsibility for the city.
Unable to build legally, many Palestinians have done so without proper permits, leaving, according to the United Nations, more than 30 percent of the city’s Arab population vulnerable to displacement. The slowing of home demolitions as a result of U.S. pressure is a welcome development; so too is Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s plan to regularize much of the illegal construction in East Jerusalem. But with the need for housing so massive and the urban regulations so restrictive, suspending punitive measures is far from sufficient. European actors, in particular, should put their weight behind those working on this issue.
This weight must be as political as technical. The EU is hesitant to fund projects in East Jerusalem in deference to Israeli sensitivities (as it tends to be in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank in which Israel has a veto over all building). This of course is sensible, but sensibility should not come at the expense of political priorities. Sundering aid from politics has reduced the effectiveness of both; how to harmonize them is not always evident, but it is plain that East Jerusalem cannot be a Palestinian capital — or even basically functional — without housing for its Arab population. Activism in this realm could enable Europe to play the political role that it claims to want but has had trouble realizing.
West Jerusalem faces a housing shortage as well. Expansion to the west has been blocked by the Jerusalem Forest, which Israel’s environmental movement staunchly defends. Urban density and the construction of high-rise dwellings have been constrained by the imperative of preserving the city’s touristic appeal and the preference of many ultra-orthodox Jews not to use an elevator on the Sabbath. Expansion to the east, therefore, has been the consensus option for ideologues and pragmatists alike. But Israel has other options for increasing the housing stock on the west side of the city, including urban regeneration and densification, as well as expansion into the forest, environmental concerns notwithstanding. Considering the complexity of these strategies, which the city has only begun to implement, Israel could benefit from aid of a different kind: planning expertise.
Of course many in Israel are no less determined to maintain their sovereignty in East Jerusalem than Palestinians are to establish theirs. For them, technical solutions to West Jerusalem’s housing shortage would be as unsatisfactory as artificially engineering a viable state would be for Palestinians. If the occupation could be ended and the conflict resolved through such relatively simple measures, it surely would have been by now. But that doesn’t mean such practical steps are unimportant. With the current situation set to endure, the powerhouses of the international community would do well to start thinking about viability in the here-and-now, rather than chasing the ever-receding diplomatic horizon as the city erodes under its residents’ feet.
Robert Blecher is director of the Israel-Palestine Project at International Crisis Group.