Israel’s obsession with maintaining a Jewish demographic majority in occupied Jerusalem — as in the rest of Israel and Palestine — has culminated in recent weeks to a Knesset Bill that, if passed, would have deeply altered the demographic nature of the city.
However, in the final hours before the late October 29 vote in the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened, halting the imminent passing of the Bill. What became known as the ‘Greater Jerusalem law’ has been gathering momentum for months. Weeks before the scheduled vote, Netanyahu himself joined the fervent chorus of support.
A national poll published on November 3 revealed that 72 per cent of Israeli Jews wanted Israel to maintain control over Muslim holy sites in occupied Jerusalem, while 58 per cent supported the initiative to expand the Jerusalem municipal boundaries and merge major illegal Jewish colonies under one municipality. The Bill proposed the expansion of the municipal boundaries of occupied Jerusalem to include major illegal Jewish colonies in the West Bank, including Ma’aleh Adumim, Givat Ze’ev, Betar Illit and Efrat.
The objective behind this effort is to increase the Jewish population of occupied Jerusalem by 150,000. The law would have further demoted the status of 100,000 Palestinians who would have found themselves in a political grey area, excluded from the occupied Jerusalem municipality and governed under a new municipal structure. East Jerusalem was illegally occupied by Israel in 1967 and annexed by the Israeli Knesset in 1981, a move that has won no international recognition and has no legal foundation.
Since then, 200,000 Jewish colonists have been moved or relocated to the occupied city, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Despite the vote not taking place, the campaign to drive Palestinians out of occupied Jerusalem is still being actively pursued.
Two main reasons seem to have led to the postponing of the vote. First, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, which has a strong constituency in the city’s elections rejected and threatened to ‘torpedo’ the Bill. Expanding the borders of occupied Jerusalem will bring about a massive number of new Jewish voters, who could jeopardize the ultra-Orthodox party’s chances of reclaiming the city’s most coveted position, the seat of the mayor.
The second reason is reportedly related to American pressure.
United States President Donald Trump had frequently spoken of a regional peace and an ‘ultimate deal’ that would allow Israel to integrate into the larger Arab economic landscape without making many concessions to Palestinians. For Israel, this has been an ideal scenario. While Netanyahu is keen on pleasing his rightwing constituency in Israel, he is also determined not to upset the ‘special relationship’ he attained with the US since Trump’s advent to power.
Trump, on the other hand, has laboured to reassure Netanyahu of his enduring loyalty. His last visit to Israel was a major step in that direction, with a US commitment to Israel’s security and future made abundantly clear. Moreover, the joint US-Israel push against the United Nations and its smaller institutions like Unesco and United Nations Human Rights Council, led by US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, seeks to torpedo future international initiatives that are critical of Israel’s military occupation of Palestine.
But an outright decision to once more alter the status of Jerusalem, annex large parts of the occupied West Bank and further ethnically cleanse tens of thousands of Palestinians would have ignited the kind of backlash that could likely bring an end to Trump’s Middle East politicking, and complicate his relations with various Arab governments.
The ‘Greater Jerusalem law’ would have done just that. The fact that it has been postponed is linked to temporary political manoeuvres, not a fundamental shift of strategy.
Indeed, the effort is relatively old. According to Israeli commentator, Shlomo Elder, the idea of expanding Jerusalem’s municipal borders “to increase the city’s population and to ensure its Jewish majority” was proposed by hardline Likud party member, Yisrael Katz, in 2007. It was deferred then due to the fear of a strong international reaction.
The idea, though, did not die but rather morphed into a movement, and politicians from various ideological backgrounds joined in, fearing that, in the future, Israel will lose the ‘demographic war’ in occupied Jerusalem, as well as in the rest of historic Palestine. “Save Jewish Jerusalem” was launched in 2016 and quickly enlisted the support of politicians, academics and other well-regarded Israelis, all united by their fear that they “would wake up with a Palestinian mayor in Jerusalem.”
So, when the ‘Greater Jerusalem law’ was introduced earlier this year, it seemed like the logical evolution of a current that has been on the rise for years.
The authors of the Bill, one of whom is Katz himself, were hardly discrete about its intentions. In explaining the motives of the Bill, Katz — who is now a minister in Netanyahu’s right-wing government — bluntly said: The Bill aims to “ensure a Jewish majority in the united city”. While members of the Israeli government work towards the same goal of expanding illegal colonist, ensuring Israel’s uncontested control over Jerusalem and thwarting Palestinian aspirations for an independent state, their political approaches are not always the same.
Netanyahu’s style, though, is different from Katz’s. While paying lip-service to peace, Netanyahu has no intentions of allowing a Palestinian state to ever take shape and is tactically working to ensure a complete physical partition between East Jerusalem and the West Bank, while, simultaneously linking major colony blocs to occupied Jerusalem.
One such effort includes the recent decision to completely destroy two Palestinian villages of Khan Al Ahmar (located in the E-1 corridor which connects Jerusalem to Ma’aleh Adumim) and Susya. The ethnic cleansing plan was described by Israeli rights group, B’Tselem, as “virtually unprecedented.” But Netanyahu had to temporarily flout his own method of ‘creeping annexation’ of Palestinian land to join the burgeoning movement championed by Katz and others who call for wholesale annexation and dramatic steps to ensure Jewish dominance.
However, a greater political calculation proved more urgent and, ‘Greater Jerusalem’ is left to be achieved some other day.
For now, Israel will resume its ‘creeping annexation’ tactics, paying no heed to international protests, and remaining oblivious to the injustice inflicted on Palestinians.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London).