As Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day this week with marches and festivals, question s about the city’s future have never seemed more relevant.
Last week, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators held their first session of the final-status negotiations, which deal with the future of Jerusalem and other key issues.
With those negotiations slated to get fully under way after Israel’s May 29 national elections, many people are wondering – and worrying – whether the city will one day be redivided.
Jerusalem is an intense city where, even at the best of times, religious fervor and nationalistic aspirations occasionally boil over.
But recent reports from Israeli officials that terrorists are planning attacks to coincide with the elections have turned Jerusalem into a pressure cooker.
Months after suicide bombers targeted a Jerusalem bus line in two separate incidents, claiming the lives of 45 victims, many Israelis are still reluctant to visit the city.
And even though Jerusalemites themselves are conducting their lives as usual, many do so in fear.
“I’m afraid every time I have to board a bus, but what choice do I have?” said Miriam Cohen, a student.
“The government is warning that there will be more terrorism prior to the elections, and that Jerusalem could well be a target,” she said.
“A lot of people are afraid, but neither terrorism nor the peace process will force us to give up Jerusalem.”
Judging from opinion polls, Cohen’s steadfast attachment to Jerusalem is shared by most Israelis.
Said pollster Rafi Smith, “The vast majority of Israelis, between 80 and 90 percent perhaps more – want Jerusalem to remain the undivided capital of Israel.”
Since the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel reunited the city with the capture of eastern Jerusalem, “Israelis have believed that the city should remain united.”
Still, Smith said, “in the past year or two, since the peace process led to a change to atmosphere, I’ve gotten the feeling that people are more open-minded to new thoughts and solutions about the city’s final status.
“Some can imagine East Jerusalem as international, while others imagine the entire city in Israeli hands but giving some autonomy to the Palestinians.”
This “open-mindedness” was evident in a recent survey conducted by the Israel- Palestine Center for Research and Information, a joint Israeli-Palestinian public policy think tank.
Of the Israeli Jews polled, 28 percent said they were ready to accept a solution that would ensure Israeli sovereignty over western Jerusalem and Israeli communities in eastern Jerusalem, but that would also grant Palestinian sovereignty over the rest of eastern Jerusalem.
In a parallel study conducted by the center, 90.8 percent of Palestinians polled rejected exclusive Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem.
Given five possible scenarios – ranging from internationalization of the entire city to Israeli sovereignty over Jews in both parts of the city – the majority of the Palestinians polled wanted a return to the June 4, 1967, border.
Such a plan would enable Israel to control the western portions of the city, and the Palestinians the eastern.
Keith Molkner, director of the center’s legal department, said, “A sixth option, total Palestinian control over the entire city, was not included in the survey because the majority would probably have chosen it for more emotional reasons.”
“This is not a viable scenario, so we left the question out,” he said.
Ahmed, a 34-year-old cook who asked that his last name not be used, opts for a pragmatic approach that would put aside emotional concerns.
“Of course, most Palestinians would like full control over the city,” he said. “But it’s a waste of energy to dream about something that cannot be.
“If we are to get anything at all, we will have to be practical and compromise. For us, having sovereignty over East Jerusalem represents a compromise.”
Steve Kamiler, a videographer who emigrated from the United States eight years ago, does not believe that Israelis would allow their government to change Jerusalem’s status.
“To be honest, it’s hard for me to consider a real change in the city’s status quo,” he said.
“I believe that the Labor government may indeed make overtures to the Palestinians, proposing increased autonomy or `government status’ over East Jerusalem creating in effect a divided city.
“When push comes to shove, though, the population at large will make too much of a ruckus to let this happen,” he said.
If it were up to Kamiler, the government would make Jerusalem’s future the first item on the agenda of the final-status talks.
“If Jerusalem is the last issue on the table, the government might be more willing to make concessions,” he said. “They could say, `If this is the only thing standing between us and final settlement, we’ll give in.’”
Yigal Ya’akov, a fruit vendor, is not prepared to surrender an inch of Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
“They don’t deserve it. They’ve already gotten enough territory from the peace process,” he said.
More than anything, Ya’akov worries that granting Palestinians control over eastern Jerusalem “will compromise security. the security situation is deteriorating as it is.”
Like many Jerusalemites, educator Levi Lauer fears that the issue of Jerusalem’s future could prove the ultimate, perhaps insurmountable stumbling block on the road to real peace with the Palestinians.
“My concern is that Jerusalem must be a place where Jews can live safely. At the same time, we must find a way to accommodate the reasonable needs of the non-Jewish population of the city,” he said.
For Lauer, guarantees of a “durable peace” would lead him to “compromise Jewish control over some part of the city.”
Although he said he is not optimistic about such guarantees, he is “prepared to grant some local autonomy.”
“The Palestinians must be given the sense that they have control over their religious, educational and social institutions,” he said.
Despite deep concerns for Jerusalem’s future, Lauer stressed that Israel must at least “give the negotiations a shot.”
Quoting a famous hockey player, Lauer says with a smile: “Wayne Gretzky once said you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”