Life In Common

07.02.12 4:00 PM ET

I've long suspected that the Israel-Palestine mess has suffered from too much high-end diplomacy, and high-end ideology. Both of them, inescapable and even essential as they are, keep the endless processing and politicking distanced from the flesh and blood people on the ground.  Could, of all things, a non-ideological one city (or perhaps open city) agenda for Jerusalem be a way forward through the endless noise?   

For a number of years, we lived in the Abu Tor neighborhood, right on the seam of East and West Jerusalem.  The borderline holds special memories for us, as one day my wife was nearly murdered while walking along it (a long story, for another time). But even before the line was seared into us, the pre-1967 border was hard to miss—walking along the street, on crossing the border, the enchanted cityscape of western Abu Tor, an aesthetic jewel, immediately gave way to decrepit, abrasive squalor, until the street looped back across the border to the West, and brightened up again.  So it goes in East Jerusalem. Lots of factors are at play here—and one of them is Arab East Jerusalemites' refusal to run for city council, for the seeming legitimacy that would confer on the existing political order.

I thought of that border and its depressing contrasts last week, when I spent several hours with a veteran journalist and lifelong East Jerusalemite (who asked me not to mention his name). He had much to say, about the unabashed corruption of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (Salam Fayyad being the tragically noble exception), the enduring legacy of Arafat's internal reign of terror, Israel's relentless drive for settlement and its contradictory policies, and the seemingly bottomless capacities for self-deception of Israelis, Palestinians and Americans alike.  

Yet he was oddly hopeful.  Because, he said, he's come to switch his angle of vision, from the top-down to the bottom-up.  Now he works in vocational education for young people from East Jerusalem less interested in revolutionary politics than in building better lives, and his time with them has been giving him ideas.  

The best thing America and Israel could do for peace, he said, is to pressure the PA to encourage East Jerusalemites to vote in municipal elections.  That would create a whole different dynamic; Jerusalem's Arabs would actually have a say in the city's governance, in resource allocation, and build meaningful coalitions with the Israelis on the basis of genuine shared concerns. (I thought of Blacks and Hasidim in New York working together to stop incinerators in residential neighborhoods. Admittedly a different situation, but some of the parallels are real.) Try it for one election cycle, he said, and see what happens.

It's painfully obvious, he continued, that a Palestinian state isn't going to happen anytime soon, the Israelis don't want it, the PA doesn't want it, nobody is ready for it. But local government, he said, could build real problem-solving leadership, give people a stake in stability and growth, so one day we could have a real federation of Israel and Palestine, based on concrete interests and not on romantic ideologies.

You mean, I said, recalling the heyday of Oslo, try building the new Middle East right here, and not at corporate networking events with Gulf Arabs?

That's right, he said.

I have to admit, and in the face of all my weariness and skepticism, I like the idea. I sounded out some people who know East Jerusalem far better than I do. One of them said it would be nice but wouldn't do much, for two reasons—East Jerusalemites hardly turn out to vote where they already can, for the Palestinian Legislative Council. Those who believe in endless armed struggle against Israel, for reasons of religious faith, Arab pride and the Fanonist anti-colonialism they've been raised on, will continue to do so, and the only ones who will really go for it are some of the Islamists (for whom sitting with Jews on a city council is not much worse than sitting with secular Palestinian nationalists).

The other, who's also been observing the growth of new, non-ideological leadership in East Jerusalem, said he likes the idea, because it will make Israelis come face to face with the one-state to which current policies (including the incorporation of outlying Arab neighborhoods into Jerusalem) are inexorably leading, and perhaps nudge both Israelis and Palestinians towards the idea of Jerusalem one day being an independent "open city," should that ever be less (or more) than utopian. 

Is this idea, of a Jewish-Arab common life in Jerusalem, focused on the less-than-heroic but essential virtues of caring for people's daily needs, as doomed as all the other well-intentioned ideas that have smashed up on this land's furies? That's always a safe bet. But an even more cutting thought arises.

Life in common is of course in many ways easier than the life of confrontation, but in other ways it's harder.  In life in common you have to be willing to let someone in. Never an easy thing to do, and that much harder when you've given one another worlds of hurt. That's part of the appeal of separation—you don't have to let the other in.  Maybe it's better that way, more livable. But maybe not in Jerusalem.