The world’s perception of the Arab-Israeli conflict and, indeed, much of its substance have been significantly altered by recent events in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem. Eleven months of unrest and King Hussein’s severing of the links between Jordan and the West Bank, have created a new and fluid situation. These events are focusing the world’s attention on the need for new policies after twenty years of waiting in vain for Arab governments or Palestinian representatives to come to the peace table.

Thinking about new policies for Israel’s relations with the Arab states and with the Palestinians should start with Jerusalem. On one hand, there is wide agreement that Jerusalem must be the last item on the agenda of any negotiations, because whatever is decided to be the fate of the West Bank will affect arrangements in Jerusalem. On the other hand, Jerusalem’s importance is such that no negotiations can even begin as long as any one of the parties is persuaded that there is no possible reconciliation of the various interests concerning Jerusalem. After 21 years of administering Jerusalem as one city, we know that all communities, but in particular the Arab one, need a much larger measure of self-administration, autonomy or functional sovereignty. The municipality needs much more of the authority now vested in the government of Israel so that it can share this local authority with the communities and the neighborhoods. Our law on local governments is essentially the one we inherited from the British: introduced in Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s, it is based on the nineteenth-century municipal code of British India, designed to grant a minimum of authority to the "natives" and a maximum to the central government.

Changes are long overdue. They could and should be implemented independently of political developments elsewhere, and without waiting to see what will be the future of the West Bank and Gaza. The future of Jerusalem is to remain united and the capital of Israel, under the overall sovereignty of Israel. There is, however, room for functional division of authority, for internal autonomy of each community and for functional sovereignty. This would go a long way toward showing that a Jerusalem united and shared is not an obstacle to negotiations; on the contrary, it would be a significant contribution to the creation of a climate conducive to constructive bargaining.


Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem are no longer part of the West Bank. This situation has come about for several reasons, including the incorporation of East Jerusalem within Israel in 1967 and the 89,000 Jews living in new neighborhoods beyond the former armistice line. The main reason, however, is that the past twenty years have seen more change for the better for more people than did the previous two thousand years. These changes include some things that are common-place in developed countries but less so in the Middle East: running water, sewers, public health services, low infant mortality, schooling for girls, voting rights for all adults, the right to join a trade union, religious freedom for all, a free press, excavation and preservation of archaeological sites and restoration and care of historic monuments. The world has recognized this in the last few years: even the automatic majority of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has toned down its routine condemnations of our efforts to preserve Jerusalem. These are but beginnings; much remains to be done.

Jerusalem’s Arab community has made great progress. The most important and obvious indicator is its size: from an unchanging 70,000 between 1948 and 1967, it reached 132,000 in 1986 and is about 150,000 today, all but 15,000 of whom are Muslim. The corresponding Jewish population figures are: 100,000 in 1948, 200,000 in 1967, 336,000 in 1986 and about 350,000 today. Of course, a minority always feels it is the target of discrimination; the 90,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem feel that way, too—as do the ultra-secular Jews. And Arabs naturally compare their conditions today with the prosperous new Jewish neighborhoods rather than with their own situation before 1967.

How different East Jerusalem is from the West Bank can be seen in the nature of the recent unrest, the intifadeh. One Arab youth killed, one policeman grievously injured, one young Jewish woman badly burned—these are the casualties recorded in Jerusalem during the months since December 1987 in which the intifadeh leadership has tried to import the uprising into Jerusalem. Only in the dozen villages that were incorporated into the Jerusalem municipality after 1967 did the movement receive a significant measure of support. In these villages a different kind of Arabic is spoken; education levels are lower; occupations are rural in character; the inhabitants are poorer; and Islamic fundamentalism is stronger; moreover, Jewish and Arab homes are often next to one another, without clear communal boundaries. It is the names of these villages that most often appear in the news when children and youths burn tires and throw rocks—A-Tur, Issawiya, Sur Baher, Shuafat, Beit Hanina, Silwan, Djebel Mukabber—although, at times, youths from these villages take their protest briefly into downtown East Jerusalem.

Another essential difference between Jerusalem and the West Bank is that the latter is administered by a special Israeli administration under the much harsher Jordanian civil law and under Israeli emergency regulations, inherited from the British; law and order is enforced there by the army under the supervision of military tribunals. All of Jerusalem is under the quite different Israeli law, administered by Israeli courts and enforced by the police. This means that the Arabs of Jerusalem are treated or have the right to be treated just like the Jews and all other citizens and residents of Israel.

Obviously, the same legislation and the same government and municipal regulations apply to Arabs and Jews alike; the judicial system’s lack of any discrimination is manifest and recognized by the Arabs. It is in government administration and law enforcement on the lower levels that equal treatment often lags behind the letter of the law. In any multi-ethnic city a minority always has to struggle for equal treatment from the city administration, even when there is no war and terrorism involved. In Jerusalem, the municipality is on the side of all minorities, and is handling cases of discrimination and harassment brought to its attention. It is not a question of equal rights but a question of good will and a question of time—and the Arabs and the other minorities know it, even if they sometimes suffer unjustly and impatiently.


A major and ever-present Arab concern, long antedating the intifadeh, is the suspicion that the basic intention of the Israeli government is to obliterate the Arab component in the city’s character. While one can understand why the Arabs would feel this way, the facts are very different. We have been protecting the Arab aspect of Jerusalem and transferring attributes of functional sovereignty to the Arabs ever since reunification.

After the 1967 war, initiated by Jordan’s full-scale attack against the Jewish quarters of Jerusalem, we gave the Arab inhabitants the choice between accepting Israeli citizenship (few opted for this choice) or retaining their Jordanian citizenship—which had been imposed on them by Jordan during its 19-year occupation of the eastern parts of the city.

This would be inconceivable anywhere else in the modern world. Whenever a city or a territory changes hands, the general rule is to bestow the new sovereign’s citizenship upon the population, or to forcibly expel or, at best, exchange it. The inhabitants of Alsace-Lorraine were subject to this treatment more than once, and this century knows many examples of such exchanges and expulsions. The very first step is usually to force upon the inhabitants who remain an oath of allegiance to the new sovereign, as well as his citizenship, language and history books. We, instead, let those who so chose retain their Jordanian citizenship—and at the same time gave them the right to vote in Jerusalem municipal elections.

We in City Hall eventually succeeded in persuading our national government to introduce the Jordanian curriculum in the publicly funded city schools in the Arab neighborhoods. Thus, Arab graduates of our school system have access to universities all over the Arab world and qualify for Arab League scholarships. The Ministry of Education in Amman determined the curriculum, and we only removed blatant anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish bias from Jordanian and United Nations Relief and Works Agency textbooks.

The Arab press is another enhancement of the Arab character of East Jerusalem and contribution to the autonomy of the Arab community. Since all of Jerusalem is part of Israel, Israeli law applies and both the Arab and the Jewish press are free, subject to military censorship. Though there are justified complaints that censorship is harsher on the Arab press, the fact is that there is no freer Arab press in the Middle East—and it must be remembered that no newspapers were published in East Jerusalem at the time of reunification in 1967. Today, four Arab dailies and a number of weeklies are published. It is true that from time to time an Arab paper runs into trouble; but on the other hand, a new addition to the Arab press, the weekly an-Nahar, became a daily quite recently.

The most important symbols and possessions of the Muslim Arab community of Jerusalem are the two mosques on the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque. Immediately after the 1967 war Israel’s military and political leaders assured Muslim and Christian dignitaries that all their rights would be respected as in the past. These promises have been kept, even though difficulties occasionally have arisen regarding the Temple Mount. Some nationalist Jewish groups in Israel, defying the government and the Supreme Court, claim the right to pray on the Temple Mount, stirring Muslim fears. The Temple Mount’s sanctity in Judaism may be one reason for the Muslims’ suspicions and apprehension of Jewish encroachment and expropriation: as they cannot envision allowing "infidels," either Jews or Christians, to hold a Muslim holy place, they have no trust in Israel’s accommodating attitude.

Jerusalem’s Arabs will obviously continue to have strong links with the West Bank and with the rest of the Arab world. We see these links as an important factor for the maintenance of an autonomous Arab culture in Jerusalem. Each summer, over 100,000 Palestinians come freely to the West Bank and to Jerusalem from Arab countries which are at war with us, such as Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia. These are mostly first-, second- and third-generation Palestinian emigres who return on family visits.

To sum up: the Arab presence in Jerusalem has been not harmed but strengthened since 1967. Evidence for this, together with the thriving Arab press and the restoration of Islamic historical monuments, includes the numerous educational and cultural institutions forming the Islamic University of Jerusalem; the Islamic college and library at al-Aqsa Mosque; the theological seminary in Beit Hanina; the school of social work in downtown East Jerusalem; the school of nursing in al-Bireh; and the college of science in Abu Dis.


All this is as it should be in Jerusalem. The accent has traditionally been on the self-segregation of independent, organic and historical communities, each with its religion, language, literature, history, dress and food. This is why for centuries the Old City has been divided into four separate quarters: Christian, Armenian, Jewish and Muslim. For centuries these communities lived in greater or lesser harmony with each other.

The notion of "separate but equal" education was justly discredited in the United States because it was not equal and because the separation was imposed by the majority. The voluntary "separate and equal" tradition of the Old City spread out beyond the walls in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Today, among the Jewish population, we see clear signs of change: hailing from 103 diasporas, so vastly different, the Jews are gradually but steadily forming one cohesive, distinct national group. Even so, almost a third of the Jewish population lives in strictly separate ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Among the Arabs a similar process is taking place. People from the outlying Arab villages of Jerusalem show some signs of adjustment to the urban Arab society, but they are still known to each other as Jozi, "from Wadi Joz," or Turi, "from Abu Tor." They identify with their village communities and do not speak of themselves as Qudsi, "from the Holy City." Christians identify with one of the forty denominations present in Jerusalem, and one cannot speak of a single Christian community, only of the Greek, the Latin, the Armenian and other communities. Jerusalem is not a melting pot, nor does anyone see integration or uniformity as desirable or even theoretically possible, except within an individual community.

In this respect, a serious problem has developed in the Old City. In a test case, an Arab family which had owned a house in the Jewish Quarter prior to 1948 was denied the right either to rebuild it or acquire new housing in the reconstructed Jewish Quarter. The Supreme Court of Israel backed the government’s decision, saying that homogeneous neighborhoods had always been a historical fact in Jerusalem, and that after all that had happened, the Jews were entitled to their exclusive quarter in the Old City.

Many of us assumed that this decision set the rules for the Muslim Quarter, too. However, in the past few years two Jewish religious schools, or yeshivot, moved into Muslim Quarter buildings owned by Jews since the end of the nineteenth century. These yeshivot sought to be as close as possible to the Temple Mount where, it is believed, the Messiah will appear at the End of Days.

Last December, one week after the outbreak of unrest in the West Bank and Gaza, Ariel Sharon, the minister of trade and industry and one of Israel’s war heroes, moved into a Muslim Quarter building owned by Jews since 1884. His openly admitted purpose was to make a political statement to all and sundry that Jews had the right to live anywhere in Israel, including the Muslim Quarter. This move added to the tension in Jerusalem, was perceived by many Israelis as a provocative act, and clearly aroused Arab fears and suspicions that the Jews who come to live among them are trespassers intent on driving the Muslims out, one building at a time, from the Old City and from all of Jerusalem.

I believe that all of our diverse neighborhoods must be preserved according to the wishes of their present inhabitants. I oppose the yeshivot while understanding their motivations. I oppose and do not want to understand the provocation by Mr. Sharon.

Another major and related Arab concern is new housing for the expanding population. Jewish groups not larger than the Muslim community, the ultra-Orthodox haredim, have succeeded in having entire new neighborhoods built exclusively for them, with synagogues, ritual baths, traffic interdictions on the Sabbath and other religious requirements. The haredim are represented on the City Council and are able to form political alliances to further their interests.

I deeply regret the fact that there are no Arabs on the City Council. Under Israeli law, citizens of other countries residing in Israel have the right to vote in municipal elections, and this of course applies also to all Jerusalem Arabs aged 18 and older, even when they are Jordanian citizens. Arabs have made increasing use of their right to vote, in spite of threats appearing in the Arab media, but those who have wanted to stand for election have been subject to a greater danger. Last year Hanna Siniora, a Christian Arab journalist, announced his intention to run at the head of a party list, but although he is a sympathizer of the Palestine Liberation Organization, he was denounced by the Arab media, his family’s two cars were burned and he received death threats until he reversed his decision.

This sorry situation means that either I or a colleague in my "One Jerusalem" coalition must represent the Arab population and look after its interests. My argument is that the Arabs are Jerusalemites and taxpayers. But we are a poor city with very limited resources, and each faction on the council tries to obtain a maximum of the resources for its constituents. Arab councillors, vociferously stating their demands, would paradoxically help return the peace and quiet we need and make it easier to obtain resources for the Arab sector, including new housing.


The basic dilemma that confronts us in the governance of Jerusalem is this: we are trying to run a democratic municipal administration in a city where most of the population, Jewish and Arab alike, lacks democratic traditions. Jews from Muslim countries from Afghanistan to Morocco, from Eastern Europe and Latin America have always distrusted the state apparatus; they survived by creating self-contained communities whose leaders represented them to the outside world and the state. The same is true of the forty Christian groups which have always lived under their religious hierarchies.

Nor could the Muslims of Jerusalem ever fully identify with their rulers: the Turks were Muslims, but under their administration the Muslim Arabs were only marginally better off than the Jews and the Christians. The British were "infidels"; and the Jordanians considered Palestinians second-class citizens, especially those in Jerusalem whom they correctly saw as opposed to the Hashemite regime. During Jordanian rule, migrants from the town of Hebron became a majority in Arab Jerusalem, changing the character of the city, and the native Christian communities declined to one-half of what they were in 1948, continuing a trend of emigration dating from the beginning of this century. Emigration of the affluent and the educated, caused by the lack of economic, professional and political opportunities, left Jerusalem’s Arabs without a strong middle class.

None of these factors is favorable to the development of democratic habits. But even if all Jerusalemites actively participated in the democratic process, the city administration would still be unable to deal with many problems because, as mentioned above, the present Israeli law on municipalities leaves very little power to the city government.

To encourage citizens’ involvement, neighborhood councils called minhalot were formed some eight years ago and exist today in a dozen Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. The present law prevents us from giving these councils much legal authority, so we established them as nonprofit associations in the hope that they would promote participatory democracy. Minhalot proved very effective as intermediaries between the individual or the family clan and the municipality. The quality of life in several Jewish and Arab neighborhoods was improved by the practical proposals of the minhalot for allocation of municipal resources or for modifying planning decisions.

Because they are not political entities, minhalot are not subject to objection on grounds of sovereignty or nationalism and can contribute to efficient planning and to peaceful resolution of conflicts. Minhalot were therefore acceptable to the Jordanian authorities before the severance of ties, and in some instances Jordanian as well as Israeli funding went to projects in Arab neighborhoods.

An expanded system of minhalot could eventually play a role in a permanent arrangement by becoming the framework for self-administration by the different autonomous communities within one municipality. Direct elections to the minhalot can assure that each neighborhood’s religious, linguistic, ethnic, cultural, educational and economic character will be determined as in the past by its inhabitants and their customs and traditions—an important factor for peaceful coexistence.

Just how tragic the situation was in divided Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967 is mostly forgotten today, because the vast majority of Jerusalemites are too young to have seen the walls cutting through the city. Yet almost no one, Jew or Arab, would seriously advocate a physical redivision of Jerusalem. There can be no geographic division of sovereignty.

I believe that further sharing of functional authority and greater decentralization within Jerusalem is possible and very desirable. Retention of Jordanian citizenship, granting the municipal voting right to citizens of countries at war with us, the minhalot as frameworks for decentralization, the fully autonomous Muslim administration of the Temple Mount, the use of the Jordanian/Arab League curriculum in the city schools for Arab children—all these features prove that Israel’s sovereignty is not diminished by Arab autonomy, and that Israel’s sovereignty need not interfere with the Arab community’s institutions and economic, cultural and even political life. Internal and external security and foreign policy are probably the only essential functions of sovereignty. There could be a sharing of internal security within a municipal police force, and Israeli policy toward the Arab world could be influenced by its resident Arab community.

A significant advantage of this approach is that functional division of authority can be accomplished without formal and public negotiations, which in the present circumstances are practically impossible. However, once new measures are introduced they affect the daily life of everybody and become almost a customary right of the beneficiaries. What the Israeli government could do—and what I am urging it to do—is to institutionalize existing measures and generously expand their application so that eventually there will come to exist a body of rights to replace the present ad hoc arrangements. Then, if other governments were to express their support for such rights, we could have some of the "international guarantees" so often mentioned for Jerusalem.


The time is ripe for changes that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. According to one theory, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat felt able to come to Jerusalem and eventually make peace only because of the elation Egypt experienced after its troops crossed the Suez Canal four years earlier. The subsequent crossing by Israel of the same canal and the threat to Cairo and to the Egyptian Third Army did not substantially affect this feeling of achievement.

The intifadeh may similarly affect the disposition of the Palestinians and enable them to enter negotiations with Israel. Even if the intifadeh loses intensity, its lasting effect could be a deep feeling of national satisfaction and pride. The intifadeh may also produce "homegrown" leaders more acceptable to Israel, in particular those who have rejected terrorism. If it ends otherwise, it will lose any positive effect it may have had.

At the same time, Israel’s complacency of twenty years has been shaken and the necessity for changes is becoming clear to many Israelis. Once recognized, both sides’ inability to attain all of their respective goals may convince them to enter negotiations. The arrangements tacitly implemented in Jerusalem could point the way to openly negotiated political compromises that will give neither side the feeling of success or failure, but will result in practical and livable (although not ideal) solutions.

At present no leaders can be said to represent the Jerusalem Arabs. The Supreme Muslim Council and other bodies were formed after 1967 to direct Muslim affairs in opposition to Israel, not in cooperation. Nevertheless, these bodies exist and enjoy a measure of authority. An ancient and influential institution is the Waqf, the religious foundation that administers Muslim holy places and owns large properties. There are also members of centuries-old, venerable families who could regain the confidence of the Jerusalemite Muslim population: the Husseini, The Nashashibi, the Nusseibeh, the Khalidi, the Dajani and the Alami families; among the Hebronite community in Jerusalem are several established families which enjoy great respect, such as the Khattib and the Barakat families. The Christian Arabs have ecclesiastical hierarchies led by their respective patriarchs and bishops who have, to a high degree, kept their communities out of the conflict. Should the Arabs one day agree to discuss how they want to live in one undivided Jerusalem, they have leaders to negotiate the apportionment of authority to each community under Israel’s overall sovereignty.

This is not utopia. For many generations there will remain some fear, resentment and religious fanaticism. Some Arabs will continue to deface Jewish tombs on the Mount of Olives as they do now from time to time, and as they did systematically after 1948 when Jewish gravestones were used for street-paving and latrines. Some Jews will insist on saying that there is no way of living with people who deface tombs and place refrigerators filled with explosive charges on busy downtown street corners. Such attitudes may last for a long time, but will eventually disappear—so we believe.

It is necessary to realize that this belief is not based on some sentimental, wishful thinking, but is a strongly felt conviction that pragmatically affects our day-to-day decisions. We recognize the existence of tension, hatred and violence, but we are guided by the decision to practice restraint, tolerance and understanding. We consider this a good investment, more than justified by the kind of Jerusalem we wish to see in the future.

Our vision has one major advantage favoring the building of this earthly new Jerusalem: it can be unilateral and still succeed, even if not everyone shares it. Its evolution depends on whether we are prepared to maintain our restraint in the face of cruel criticism, justified or unjustified, strictly avoid retaliation for violence, and ensure complete equality under the law. We must be realists and admit that violent incidents will occur and some among us may at times react violently. However, this should not mislead us into thinking that ours is an impossible task. The fundamental question is: Are we going to admit to ourselves that we have nothing to fear?

The flags that may fly from the mosques of the Temple Mount will not make Jerusalem less Jewish or more Muslim. Jerusalem is great enough for a few flags beside that of the State of Israel. We are here to stay, and deep in our hearts we know it, but it sometimes seems that we are uncomfortable asserting it. Fanatical minorities, such as Meir Kahane’s movement or the Faithful of the Temple Mount, are born from a feeling of uncertainty, a remnant of the ghetto mentality, and from a lack of faith. Others have moments of uncertainty to which they react by making unnecessarily provocative statements.

We must be firm in declaring that the unity of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, is beyond negotiation. But we must be sufficiently confident to announce that everything else is negotiable as a matter of course.

To sum up my modest proposal: we must make new and permanent arrangements in the city without waiting for negotiations on the national level, and we must do so independently of any such negotiations. Firmly embedded in the new status quo must be provisions for such important matters as the rights of the communities to internal self-administration in areas like education, welfare and sanitation; rights of communities to the geographical limits of their homogeneous neighborhoods as well as the authority to assess their members for the cost of services, jurisdiction of each community’s tribunals, the modalities of access to all holy places and the regulations of dress and behavior in them, jurisdiction over trespassers in the holy places, and any other matter of importance to each and every community. As defense and foreign policy will be reserved to the government of Israel, there should be no problem with sovereignty, real or symbolic, within one unified city.

We should expand the functional sovereignty and self-administration rights already transferred to the Arabs of Jerusalem. Those who think we should not are mistakenly afraid that we cannot afford it—but we decidedly can. The day we understand this we will be able to relieve legitimate Arab grievances without fear of showing weakness, and deal with violence without outraged surprise or feelings of failure.

It is clear that in the country’s present mood, particularly after last month’s elections, no government would be able to enshrine in law the rights of the non-Jewish minorities of Jerusalem, because a sufficient majority in the Knesset probably could not be mustered to pass such a measure. However, it may be feasible for the government to issue regulations empowering the municipality of Jerusalem to make such arrangements as are just and necessary. This would greatly calm Arab anxieties, especially if the government were to issue statements of intent and principle as to the main concerns of the Arabs, such as the Temple Mount, Jewish settlement in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and new Arab housing outside the walls.

We of all people, who for two thousand years longed for Jerusalem, our historical and spiritual capital, must understand the feelings of the Arabs for Jerusalem, and realize that more time will have to pass until our vision of Jerusalem will be shared by the city’s Arab residents. But we can make the waiting less difficult for all.

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  • Teddy Kollek has been Mayor of Jerusalem since 1965. Copyright © 1988 by Teddy Kollek.
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