Adopt a two-tier municipal plan for the East Jerusalem area

The recent decision by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to allow the participation of Palestinians residing in East Jerusalem in the forthcoming Palestinian elections surprised many. It was taken by some as a sign of a new pragmatism on the part of the Israeli government. The Israeli right took it as the thin end of a wedge: the phrase "they're about to divide up Jerusalem" was swiftly dredged up, ironically a slogan originally coined by Olmert himself and used against former Prime Minister

Shimon Peres, now a member of Olmert's Kadima Party.

Pragmatic, yes, but not as part of a wider pragmatism with regard to Jerusalem: beyond maintaining the present status quo, there has been no official policy regarding East Jerusalem since the attempt, at the Camp David talks and in the subsequent Clinton parameters, both in 2000, to present one. On the other hand, in the present political climate no Israeli government is about to begin dividing up Jerusalem.

Yet Jerusalem does require urgent action, and the anomalous legal status of its Palestinian citizens in the forthcoming elections (Palestinian as well as Israeli) merely highlights this need. Since Camp David, the situation on the ground has been greatly deteriorating. A burgeoning population, particularly in the Old City, inadequate (in some areas non-existent) infrastructure, utilities, and public services, haphazard enforcement of planning and construction laws, rising poverty and rising crime are together creating a situation that is becoming ungovernable.

The status quo is no longer tenable. A myriad of factors have contributed to the situation's present acuity: legal factors - not least the effects of poorly conceived and poorly applied Israeli laws creating the anomalous hybrid "permanent residency" status of East Jerusalem Palestinians - political factors, historical and demographic factors, and of course the recent effects of the boundary fence. None of the political solutions broached since the Camp David talks - all variations on positions taken then and on the Clinton parameters - provides concrete answers to this plight, except for making a solution to the problems on the ground contingent on a solution of the wider sovereignty issue.

However, when there is no perceivable Palestinian polity capable of assuming control and governance over a Palestinian Jerusalem, and no Israeli political consensus over the desirability of this happening, the likelihood of anything like it taking place soon is rather remote.

Until this happens, the predicament of East Jerusalem and its population requires that we look for practical solutions, and at the most basic level. Since the overriding effects of the current situation are experienced at the municipal level, it makes sense that the parties also begin seeking workable solutions to these problems there - first and foremost, by creating bodies (joint Israeli and Palestinian as well as separate) that could assume responsibility for decisions over planning, the provision of utilities and public services, transportation, and the maintenance of law and order.

To do this, we would propose setting up a two-tier system of municipal government for the East Jerusalem area - the whole of the area, not merely the area within the walls of the Old City. Boroughs would be established, each with a council chosen from its population and each council with representatives in an overall council, or municipal corporation. How the boroughs would themselves be organized, what powers each would have, and how these might be exercised, and the interface between the overall council or municipal corporation and existing bodies, are questions that require more extensive treatment than may be sketched out here.

It is the principle behind the proposal that is presented here: to begin to find, in the prevailing legal and political circumstances, mechanisms that are legally and practically workable, which are capable of meeting at least some of the immediate needs of the population, that avoid as much as possible the stigma felt in the application of Israeli sovereign law to the area, and which provide the beginnings of representation for the local population.

Aid from the international community should also be requested in implementing such a plan. Israel has already embarked on a process of protecting East Jerusalem by applying the principles of the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage and involving existing UNESCO mechanisms. Applied wisely and in tandem with a practical plan, UNESCO could prove an important ally in tackling the area's acute problems, as well as ensuring non-controversial protection for sites of historical, cultural and religious importance.

It might be argued that none of the above addresses the pressing issues of the final-status arrangements for the area, the drawing up of sovereignty lines, the establishment of symbols of Palestinian sovereignty in the area under Palestinian control, or the question of what to do with the Temple Mount and the other Holy Places. Yet the pursuit of one need not cancel out the other. The above plan would allow for the creation of the first mechanisms of cooperation that would in any case be needed to make these provisions possible.

Gilead Sher served as head of the prime minister's bureau and policy coordinator and was the Israeli co-chief negotiator in 1999-2001. Jonathan Gillis is a senior associate at Aaronsohn, Sher, Aboulafia, Amoday and Co., Law Offices and is chairman of Bizchut, the Israel Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter.

Published in The Daily Star
, January 10, 2006