CONSCIENCE AND POWER (Monday 6 February)
PREVIOUS: Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)
We met councillor Meir Margalit for an early evening coffee back in West Jerusalem, not far from the ICAHD offices and the municipal government buildings. Like many progressive councillors back in the UK, he is having to implement policies he dislikes and run a kind of harm reduction strategy, but under pressures and constraints that few of us can imagine. After a political shake-up in the Jerusalem municipal government in July 2011, his party Meretz, which is on the far left of Israeli politics, has joined the municipal coalition and he has ended up with the responsibility for East Jerusalem. The dilemma of participating in government is to what extent the values of peace, justice and equality can be furthered by doing so; the active consciences of Meretz members ask them every day whether being within the coalition enables them to do good or merely makes them accomplices. Since joining the coalition, Meretz has tried to reform planning policy to make it fairer, more in accordance with the better Israeli traditions of rationality and more humane, rather as it was under the legendary Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem before 1991.
Policy on demolitions obviously causes a great deal of pain. Knowing the process from the inside is necessary to rationalise it and allow more opportunity for appeals and legal challenges, but it is a hard thing to live with. Jerusalem, as Meir confirmed, is unequal. East Jerusalem gets much less than its fair share of municipal spending – about 8-9 per cent compared to around 37 per cent of population and a rather higher (we were quoted the figure 43 per cent elsewhere) contribution to the city’s revenues. East Jerusalem Palestinians pay their municipal taxes assiduously, as it is a good way of providing evidence of residency and thereby keeping the bulldozers from one’s door (see MONOPOLY JERUSALEM STYLE). The differential treatment of parts of the city is obvious from a casual inspection of the state of the streets and public services in East (outside the Old City) and West. Priority is given to connecting settlements to clean water and decent roads above any considerations shown to Palestinian neighbourhoods. There is an ideological and political purpose behind this, but it is less successful – says Margalit – than most Palestinians believe – far from driving them down to 22 per cent, the demographic planners seem to think that limiting the Palestinian share to 40 per cent is the maximum achievable restriction.
Meir Margalit’s own story is a revealing one. He grew up in Argentina, the son of Holocaust survivors, and his family wanted him to move to Israel once he had finished school; their fear of persecution had understandably come with them to the Argentina of Peron and the generals. Meir was injured in the October 1973 war and dates his political shift and his conclusion that the price of the Zionist vision was too high to that time, and he has been active with the peace movement and the political left through the 1990s. Peace-making Israelis – Rabin above all – have often come to their position via their deep understanding of the nature and meaning of war, not from armchair idealism. His political relationship with the religious element is interesting; while a secular party Meretz has been able to find some common ground on their scepticism about the Israeli state as it is constituted today, and about social issues. Finding unexpected points of contact with apparently hostile political forces is essential for a creative politician of the Israeli left. The Jerusalem coalition at least has at its head a Mayor, Nir Barkat, who is right-wing in terms of having a private sector business background rather than extreme religious views or a love of the security-industrial complex. He defeated an Orthodox candidate in the 2008 elections. Jerusalem depends on tourism and pilgrimage, and therefore on peace and co-existence, and it is a poorer city than Tel Aviv because of its much larger Palestinian population (with its high unemployment levels) and Orthodox community (because of their non-participation in the labour market and the state).
There is a common interest in peace, development and balancing the budget. Demolishing houses can be expensive, while legalising them is pretty cheap. Jerusalem’s mayor has more in common with the embattled but creative Palestinian mayor of Hebron than he may imagine. The linkage between justice for each community, peace and social justice is inescapable in Jerusalem, in a way that may not appear obvious in the less problematic, more superficially liberal city of Tel Aviv. It is also in Israel’s interests. Meir’s parents wanted him to live somewhere he would be safe as a Jew. But, as he says, “the paradox is that the only place where Jews are in danger is here.”
For myself, as a selfish traveller but one with an interest in the welfare of Jerusalem, I thought about the mid-priced hotel market. According to the Palestinian hotel association, the number of Palestinian hotels operating in Jerusalem has halved since 1967, while lavish new international complexes are opened in West Jerusalem. My modest proposal to the city authorities of Jerusalem would be to produce a strategy to develop once more a flourishing East Jerusalem small hotel and tourism sector, get permissive with building and redevelopment permits, and in doing so encourage the growth of an international, pro-peace Palestinian middle class in Jerusalem. Flying to Israel used to be a difficult matter, but now Easyjet go to Tel Aviv from Luton, Jet-2 fly from Manchester and numerous airlines from Eastern Europe also make the trip. Not everyone on cheap flights will just want to go to the beach and the nightclubs of Tel Aviv. How about it?
A complicating element of Jerusalem city politics is that the main Palestinian parties are strongly against participation in city elections, because their view is that it legitimises Israeli control of East Jerusalem and those voting are collaborators with the occupation. I can understand this view, but from my foreign point of view I do not share it. There may yet emerge, in a peaceful and just settlement, a city of Jerusalem authority that has some unique bi-national or international status even if sovereignty over the city is divided. That city government will almost certainly emerge from the existing municipality, so it seems to me that in principle there are grounds for arguing that voting in city elections is not really recognising Israeli control. In terms of raw pragmatism, the argument for voting is that it could make the difference between justice and injustice for the people of East Jerusalem in the short term and between a viable Palestinian state and its failure in the longer term. If people do not vote, then it is hardly surprising that any political system (including the UK’s) does not cater adequately to their interests. Voting would probably make East Jerusalem Palestinians the largest bloc in the city, able to insist on fair treatment in both its municipal and international dimensions. Pluralists only have a narrow majority over their opponents in the city with current voting patterns, and proper political representation for East Jerusalem seems to me would solve a number of problems. And it is an issue which is in the hands of Palestinians to solve, unlike many others where the power of the Israeli state dominates the process.
I confess that I found Meir Margalit extremely likeable, a gentle and wise person with a strong moral code who has been placed in a nearly impossible position. There is still a small space in Israeli politics for people like him, who say that the military-industrial emperor has no clothes. And that, I hope, will be the narrow opening that becomes the gateway to justice and peace.