Suburbanites Seek to Evade Jerusalem's Embrace


The Israeli government's announcement this week that it intends to expand Jerusalem has created a storm of protest from the United States, the United Nations and others who say it will further damage the beleaguered peace process with the Palestinians.

But inside Israel, the plan's most vocal opponents are people whose focus is not on the peace process but on the kinds of quality-of-life issues that might sound familiar to municipal annexation foes in California and elsewhere. They fear that the plan will force them back inside a city that may have been the center of Jewish aspirations for thousands of years but that many of them sought to escape with a flight to the suburbs.

In their view, Jerusalem is fractious, rigidly religious and impoverished.

"I moved away from Jerusalem," said Yami Yaffe, an environmentalist who departed the city nine years ago for this secular, relatively affluent community to the west. "I don't want to go back without even making a choice."

On Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet voted to expand Jerusalem's jurisdiction, extending the boundaries of the city westward, inside Israel proper, and deepening its administrative ties to communities to the north and east, including several Jewish settlements inside the occupied West Bank.

Specifics of the plan, including the structure of a new "umbrella municipality," will be studied by a committee headed by Interior Minister Eli Suissa over the next two months and then brought back to the Cabinet. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert say the plan is intended to strengthen the city, which Israel regards as its united, eternal capital. The Palestinians claim the east side of Jerusalem as the capital of their own future state.

The decision provoked widespread criticism from the international community. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Tuesday joined the dissenters, urging Netanyahu's government to rescind its "unfortunate decision."

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said the plan for Jerusalem is "not helpful" to U.S. efforts to revive the peace talks, and Palestinians said it violates existing peace deals, which state that the status of Jerusalem, along with other deeply divisive issues, is to be left for last in the negotiations.

But in Israel, where there is consensus that Jerusalem should remain undivided and under Israeli control, reaction to the idea of strengthening ties to West Bank settlements--that part of the plan that sparked international criticism--has been muted.

Standing almost alone in opposition to the eastward expansion are a handful of peace activists, led by Ir Shalem, a group affiliated with the leftist organization Peace Now. Ir Shalem leader Daniel Seidemann said the group strongly opposes the plan, which he said could finally scuttle the peace process. But the group has few allies in the fight.

Even the opposition Labor Party, which launched this peace process when it headed the previous government, seems to feel constrained in criticizing a plan billed as fortifying Jerusalem, Seidemann said.

"Jerusalem is of such symbolic importance . . . that there is a fear even among those Israelis who very much favor the peace process to appear to be weak on this issue," he said. "It's political heresy."

No such qualms exist in the Israeli towns and villages to the west of the city, where there is widespread antipathy to the idea of being compelled to join Jerusalem's ballooning municipality. The issues here are not political but social.

Yaffe, 52, said he left Jerusalem because he wanted to live in a smaller community and because he had concerns about the growing influence and numbers of the city's relatively poor ultra-Orthodox minority. He also was attracted by the open space surrounding the community in the picturesque Judean hills.

But now, he said, Jerusalem wants "our money"--the tax base of Mevaseret Zion and neighboring communities. It also desires "our land"--the green area that surrounds them--said Yaffe, who helped lead a protest Sunday against the annexation of the western suburbs.

While Mevaseret Zion may yet escape annexation because of large-scale opposition here, its residents say they expect, at a minimum, to be included in the "umbrella municipality" that will extend Jerusalem's administrative authority to the east as well. And that would involve the loss of local control over planning, building, services and budgets.

In Beit Zait, a pleasant community of 1,500 just south of Mevaseret Zion, Tikva Niv, 70, called the plan "a big mistake" inspired by politicians and developers who want to cover the hills near her home with row upon row of apartments.

Many of those interviewed on this side of town said Netanyahu and Olmert should expand aggressively to the east, despite the international criticism provoked by building on occupied land, and leave their communities intact.

"I'm very strongly for this," Yaffe said. "It's about time that we all recognize Jerusalem as our capital and include the Israelis who live near it [in the West Bank]. I have no problem with that whatsoever."

But Benny Kashriel, mayor of Maale Adumim, a booming Jewish settlement on Jerusalem's eastern outskirts, also said he would rather do without Jerusalem's embrace. "We are an independent city, and we want to stay like this," said Kashriel, whose town has grown in recent years to a population of 25,000. "We hope that our government will make us a legal part of Israel but not part of Jerusalem. We have a high quality of life now; this could only make it much worse."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World