The likelihood of Israel agreeing to divide Jerusalem or concede control over the Temple Mount anytime in the near future is slim. Jerusalem is central to Israel’s national ethos and critical to Israel’s national security. Israel’s control of Jerusalem provides strategic depth for the densely populated coastal plain and vitally links the coast to the Jordan River as Israel’s eastern security border.
However, demographic realities in the city and accompanying political developments worryingly suggest that Israeli-Zionist political control of the city is in danger. Consequently, the most pressing Zionist challenge is to settle Jews—Zionist Jews—in Jerusalem.
For the moment, Jews are the majority population (62 percent) in Jerusalem. The majority of this Jewish public is Zionist (71 percent), meaning that the majority of the Jewish public identifies with the core Zionist ethos of the modern Jewish state. This includes a secular public of around 20 percent, and traditional (33 percent) and religious Zionist (18 percent) communities as well. The haredi Orthodox Jewish community of Jerusalem, which defines itself mostly as non-Zionist, stands at about 29 percent of the city’s population, and it maintains a very high fertility rate and is growing. (The secular sector is shrinking.)
Since the unification of Jerusalem in 1967, the proportion of Arabs among city residents has increased from 26 percent to 36 percent. But this increase has been only marginally relevant on the political level since Jerusalemite Arabs have heretofore declined to play an active political role in the city. For 50 years, they have boycotted municipal elections (even though they have the right to vote), ensuring a Zionist majority in elected city institutions.
Today, however, Jerusalemite Arabs seem to be on the verge of a drastic change in their political behavior.
Most Arabs in the city have experienced life under Israeli rule only. And with the failure of the Oslo process, they intuit that the city will remain undivided. Encouraged by efforts of the municipality to encourage economic integration of Jerusalemite Arabs in broader city frameworks, there is a process of “Israelization” underway. There is also a growing number of Arab students in east Jerusalem that attend schools teaching the Israeli high school curriculum. Surveys indicate that close to 70 percent of Jerusalemite Arabs have come to prefer the status quo under Israeli control. They have little desire to be incorporated into what would assuredly be a failed Palestinian state, if it arose.
Significant change now may be afoot in the political arena, too. Overcoming the fear of Palestinian Authority terror that until now has prevented Arab participation in the Jerusalem political process, several prominent local Arab community leaders have declared their intention to run for election to the city council. And polls indicate that, for the first time, 60 percent of Jerusalemite Arabs are considering voting in the upcoming October 2018 municipal elections.
This is a welcome development. But it also portends the possibility of a municipal political coalition partnership between the Arab and haredi Orthodox Jewish communities in the city. Together, they could dominate the city council.
Despite natural inhibitions that would mitigate against such a coalition—and it is indeed unlikely in the near term—it is not impossible or implausible. The very possibility of such a coalition would distort municipal politics, and, worse, could threaten the current Israeli mainstream consensus in favor of maintaining a united city.
These trends have created uneasiness among government ministers. Some ministers are advancing plans to buttress the Jewish-Zionist majority in the city by rejiggering city borders. One plan calls for the creation of a broad metropolitan Jerusalem municipal entity by annexing Jewish settlements around Jerusalem. Another plan seeks to divest Jerusalem of several Arab neighborhoods beyond the security barrier. However, none of these proposals address the main issue: the need for more Zionist Jewish residents in Jerusalem.
In order to avert the loss of the city to non-Zionist elements, Jerusalem should become the focus for Jewish-Zionist settlement in the 21st century. The government should adopt policies that encourage an influx of Zionist Jews to Jerusalem. What are most needed are housing projects and economic incentives that draw young Israelis to new neighborhoods in and immediately adjacent to Jerusalem—and not, as a priority matter, to settlements in the Judean and Samarian hinterlands.
Given a limited pool of settlers and resources, Israel’s priorities should be clear. Israel’s fate is linked to the eternal Jewish capital city of Jerusalem, and the Israeli government should act to bolster its hold on the city accordingly. There is no Zionism without Zion.
Professor Efraim Inbar is the president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum.