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An Exchange on Jerusalem

In response to:

The Myth of Jerusalem from the December 19, 1991 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Avishai Margalit is a Jerusalemite I hold in high regard. I enjoyed reading his concise and elegant history of this city [“The Myth of Jerusalem,” NYR, December 19, 1991] which he so rightly says has “more history than geography.” However, I strongly disagree with his conclusions.

Before discussing that, however, I must comment that, in the age of television with its attendant erosion of historical memory, I am not comfortable if someone merely says, “In 1967 Israel conquered East Jerusalem….” Twenty-five years later, I feel it is important to state that this was the result of a war not of Israel’s choosing but a war of aggression initiated by all our Arab neighbors that, had our enemies had their way, would have been a war of extermination. Let me add that though I am in favor of territorial compromise, I protest the assumption hidden behind much Arab argumentation that there need be no penalty for attacking Israel repeatedly.

I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Margalit that Jerusalem must remain one undivided city, and I believe this is the true desire of virtually all Jerusalemites, no matter what their persuasion. Like Professor Margalit, I also feel that the currently touted Palestinian proposal for divided sovereignty is, despite the intention of most of its supporters, a recipe for redividing the city. I have thus argued since the idea of divided sovereignty was first put to me by the late President Sadat during his historic visit to Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, I find his proposal, joint sovereignty, to be no less dangerous. City government, especially in a heterogeneous city like Jerusalem, is a political system that must balance an endless array of competing claims, put forth by history and geography no less than by culture at every level, by progress, by the course of events in the world at large, and by the desires and actions of groups and individuals. Professor Margalit’s concept of joint sovereignty hatches an unworkable system, where even the smallest of matters would require complex adjudication and where decision making and spontaneous acts of leadership could be interfered with endlessly. The examples, criminal and personal legal issues, which he frankly presents as being intricate and complex are still easier to regulate a priori than mundane and crucial municipal issues. Municipal government must be able to be flexible and responsive to a host of questions like town planning and provision of services, not to mention unexpected problems or issues imposed by national policy like taxation, customs, immigration, and the like.

Professor Margalit suggests returning to “the old idea of governing the city by boroughs.” In fact, an evolution of this idea is already in place in eleven neighborhoods, eight Jewish and three Arab, in Jerusalem. As budget and local willingness permit, I would be happy to see this program of neighborhood administration councils cover the whole city. The idea is to devolve a considerable amount of municipal power to smaller and more homogenous units, to involve people in decision making for their immediate surroundings and to teach them that democracy is not just going to the polls every four or five years, but also the give-and-take of identifying and resolving problems and goals.

One point must be added to the summary of my ” ‘Ottoman’ solution” for Jerusalem’s governance: Palestinian citizens of Jerusalem—though they are good taxpayers and were voting in increasing numbers in municipal elections until the last round (held February 1989, when the intifada was a year old) and though many hold responsible jobs as municipal employees—have never been willing to serve on the City Council, that is, to fully join the political game. When, for the first time, before the last elections, a leading Palestinian announced his candidacy, Arab response was the firebombing of his family’s two cars, with no public condemnation of the violence by his community. He got the message and withdrew. It is my expectation that once there is an overall settlement, one that I believe must leave Jerusalem under Israel’s sole sovereignty, the Palestinians here will realize that there is no longer any point in fighting for turf. Then, it is my hope, they will rise to the challenge I have offered them for twenty-five years and organize themselves as an effective political lobby, electing representatives to fight for the rights of their constituents. The Palestinians would thus have a say in all matters that affect their lives as residents of Jerusalem. Democracy is a game that works well for the people who play.

It is no secret that I find much to criticize in my government’s policies in Jerusalem and elsewhere. And yet, all our faults are not to be compared to the viciousness of Arab internal terrorism, the terrorism they have directed against Jews and others, and the unabated aggression of the Arab states. Therefore, I reject and consider absolutely immoral the current tendency to give equal weight to Jewish and Arab political claims in Jerusalem and greater censure to bad behavior on the part of Jews The world has no right to this levelling, just as biased criticism from without does not excuse us from honest evaluation of our own behavior.

Returning to Professor Margalit, I don’t know of any philosopher who is a mayor nor any mayor who is a philosopher. There are good reasons for that.

Teddy Kollek
Mayor of Jerusalem
Jerusalem, Israel

Avishai Margalit replies:

The mayor of my city, in his response to my essay on Jerusalem, ends with the punch line: “Returning to Professor Margalit, I don’t know of any philosopher who is a mayor nor any mayor who is a philosopher. There are good reasons for that.”

The philosopher Michel de Montaigne served very successfully in a position equivalent to mayor of Bordeaux from 1581 to 1585. There were good reasons then for appointing a philosopher as mayor: war, danger of plague, and a severe outbreak of religious fanaticism. When such things happen conventional wisdom doesn’t work; something else must be tried.

In 1714 another great philosopher, Montesquieu, was appointed to a position equivalent to deputy president of the Bordeaux city council. Montesquieu ran on a platform declaring: “If I knew something that could serve my nation better but would ruin another, I would not propose it to my prince, for I am first a human being and only then a Frenchman.” I’m sure Mr. Kollek would not disqualify this position just because it came from a philosopher and is therefore not a “practical” one.

Perhaps all Mr. Kollek wanted to say in his punch line was that I wouldn’t be a suitable mayor of Jerusalem. If so, he’s right. Yet it would be equally right to say that I can’t be compared with Montaigne or Montesquieu. So perhaps there’s still a place for a good philosopher to be mayor of Jerusalem.

Mayor Kollek brings two arguments against my suggestion for joint Israeli-Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem—one moral, one practical. The moral argument seems to be that Israeli Jews have the exclusive right to Jerusalem because the Arabs attacked Israel in 1967 and could have destroyed it. Therefore they must pay for their aggression. Mr. Kollek adds that the Arabs’ “political claims in Jerusalem” must be judged with respect to the fact that their terror is more despicable than anything Israel has done to them. The practical argument is that joint sovereignty simply won’t work.

Mr. Kollek’s moral principle is the punitive one that guided the authors of the Treaty of Versailles. A very high price in human lives was paid in our century for that principle. To the best of my knowledge Mr. Kollek has been an ardent supporter of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt, whose actions led to the war. Yet this treaty was possible only because the Versailles principle was not applied and Egypt got all its territory back.

I fought in Jerusalem in that June of 1967, and I too was shelled by the Jordanian legion. Yet I don’t recall any Palestinians fighting us—only the Jordanian army. The Palestinians were, at most, cheerleaders. If Mr. Kollek must have someone pay the price of sovereignty, let him send the bill to King Hussein.

But Mr. Kollek can relax. The Palestinians have paid in very hard currency for that war. Who knows better than he that 150,000 Jews (the number is his own) have been settled on the other side of the Green Line, on Palestinian land? Mr. Kollek can also breathe easy about the balance of terror between us and the Palestinians. We are doing pretty well. We have, in fact, killed many times more of them than they have of us (or of themselves). And this is without counting the thousands of Palestinians sitting in our detention camps without trial, those whose houses have been blown up, those who have been exiled, and those who are tortured while under arrest. In the balance of terror the Palestinians are clearly on the lighter side of the scales. Indeed, Mayor Kollek ought to be careful with the principle that terror should be paid for with sovereignty. He’s liable to lose a lot of sovereignty over that principle.

Now for the practical argument. Mr. Kollek presents matters as if we are faced for the first time with three options, and he as an experienced mayor is telling us that only one of these options works. The options are 1. Full Israeli sovereignty, including coexistence with the Arab residents, who are supposed to accept our sovereignty. 2. Divided sovereignty. 3. (My suggestion) Joint sovereignty. There is, of course, a fourth option, which seems to have become one preferred by the Israeli government; full Israeli sovereignty without any Arabs in the city.

Mr. Kollek forgets to mention that the only option that has been tried so far is his own. It has been tried for over twenty years, with an enlightened mayor full of good will. And it has failed disastrously. The Arabs have not made peace with the Israeli sovereignty that was declared immediately after the 1967 war. And after twenty years of Mayor Kollek’s regime they rebelled. Every Israeli government has supported Mr. Kollek, including the Likud government (which never, in a city with a clear majority of Likud voters, ran a substantial rival against him for the mayoralty). Every mayor has complaints against the central government, including Mr. Kollek. But he has been given the opportunity to carry out his option, and it has failed. Not because Mr. Kollek isn’t a good mayor—he’s the best—but because his option doesn’t work.

Mayor Kollek doesn’t tell us exactly what would be hard about running a city under joint sovereignty. He just makes the general statement that running a city is a very difficult and complicated matter, involving “town planning and provision of services.” I believe him. I also believe that if the Palestinians were prepared, as part of a peace agreement, to accept exclusive Israeli sovereignty over the city, running the city would be much easier than under joint sovereignty. In fact, if the Palestinians would agree to leave the city altogether, it would be even easier to run.

But the question is whether the Palestinians will agree to accept Mr. Kollek’s solution. Even though they are making every effort now to leave the discussion on Jerusalem for last, there is no sign that they would be willing to accept exclusive Israeli sovereignty over the entire city. All the signs suggest that they would not. Mr. Kollek could argue that his own solution—Israeli sovereignty plus coexistence—has not yet been tried because Israel has not yet reached an agreement with the Arabs. If such an agreement is reached, he expects the solution will succeed. I don’t believe that his solution can be the basis for an agreement; but if the Arabs agree to Mr. Kollek’s formula of their own free will, I can assure him that neither I nor my colleagues will insist on our own solution, even if we are convinced it is more just.

There are good reasons to be skeptical about my own option. Amos Elon, in his book on Jerusalem, says that it’s hard to believe that the Israelis and the Palestinians will be the first to put into effect the only reasonable solution for the city—peace with the removal of rigid borders of sovereignty. But, in contrast to Mr. Kollek’s option, which we know for certain has been tried and hasn’t worked, at least my option hasn’t yet been tried.

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