While Israelis were celebrating Jerusalem Day, marking the jubilee of the reunification of the city in the 1967 Six-Day War, something strange—and largely unnoticed—occurred in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official rhetoric: He stopped promising to keep Jerusalem united. On no fewer than three occasions in the week of this anniversary, Netanyahu eschewed his regular promise to retain the whole city; instead, he repeated verbatim that the Temple Mount and Western Wall would remain under Israeli sovereignty. Such a glaring omission, from a premier who so carefully guards his words, can hardly have been accidental. Rather, it hints that the Prime Minister is seeking to create the necessary ambiguity for a change in policy on the outlines of Israel’s contested capital. Indeed, if media reports are to be believed, such a plan is already on the agenda.
Netanyahu’s multiple Jerusalem Day speeches all carried the same carefully calibrated message. At the opening ceremony for the week’s festivities, Netanyahu declared, “Jerusalem was and always will be the capital of Israel. The Temple Mount and the Western Wall [my emphasis] will always remain under Israeli sovereignty.” (He signed off by calling Jerusalem Israel’s “eternal and united capital forever,” almost as a perfunctory platitude.) At a special Knesset session, Netanyahu used the same formula: “The Temple Mount and the Western Wall [my emphasis] will forever remain under Israeli sovereignty.” And at the official ceremony on Ammunition Hill that evening, Netanyahu rejected the “far-fetched notion that we should turn back time” to a divided Jerusalem, before repeating: “The Temple Mount and the Western Wall [my emphasis] will forever remain under Israeli sovereignty.”
On one occasion this Jerusalem Day, Netanyahu did promise to keep the capital united. The repetition of the same formula, however, arguably qualified what the premier meant by “united.” “We shall relinquish neither the Temple Mount nor the Western Wall [my emphasis],” said Netanyahu at the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva, “and we won’t return to dividing the city.”
This rhetoric constitutes a major departure from previous years’ declarations. On Jerusalem Day 2016, Netanyahu declared, “We shall never return to the reality of a divided, wounded city.” On Jerusalem Day 2015, he announced, “We will forever keep Jerusalem united under Israel’s sovereignty.” On Jerusalem Day 2014: “We will never divide our heart—never…it must be united.” And so on. But not this year. These statements were also a departure from the bread-and-butter pledges of Netanyahu’s political rivals. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, chairman of the far-Right Jewish Home Party, urged U.S. President Donald Trump to be the first President to recognize a united Jerusalem. Prime-ministerial hopeful Yair Lapid, of the centrist Yesh Atid, vowed a week earlier that “Jerusalem will forever remain united.”
Logically, the shift in rhetoric opens the door for Netanyahu to approve some sort of division of Jerusalem within its current boundaries. Those municipal borders encompass the territory annexed after the Six-Day War, including what was then East Jerusalem (mostly the Old City) and another 28 surrounding Arab villages. These impoverished neighborhoods suffer from chronic underinvestment, and were home to many of the attackers in Israel’s recent wave of lone-wolf stabbing attacks. Devastatingly, eight of these neighborhoods—containing tens of thousands of Arab Jerusalemites—are behind Israel’s Security Barrier, turning them into a lawless no-man’s land disconnected from municipal services, and a no-go area for Israeli police.
Indeed, many Israelis argue that relinquishing those villages—now contiguous neighborhoods of the city—would not constitute a division of Jerusalem at all. The Movement for Saving Jewish Jerusalem, founded by several former legislators and ministers, argues that most of these villages were never historically part of Jerusalem—and calls for transferring most of them to the Palestinian Authority, while retaining the Old City and the surrounding Holy Basin. The Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group backed by former premier Ehud Barak, calls for Israel to unilaterally transfer these suburbs to a new “umbrella municipal authority,” retaining control on a provisional basis only until they can become part of Palestine in a permanent accord. It argues that “East Jerusalem” is only the 6 square kilometers of the Old City and its immediate environs, while the surrounding 70 square-kilometer envelope was never part of historical Jerusalem.
In light of this, what could be behind Netanyahu’s decision to repeat the carefully scripted and nuanced pledge to keep the Temple Mount and Western Wall under Israeli sovereignty, when invoking the perennial vow to keep Jerusalem united would have been more straightforward—and more consistent with previous policy?
One answer is: Trump. The unpredictable American President is serious about brokering the “ultimate deal”—a diplomatic Holy Grail that he will only covet more intensely as his domestic woes intensify. As former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro warned in Haaretz, Trump has leverage over both Israelis and Palestinians, and “neither will want to get caught saying no to him.” Toning down the rhetoric on the eternal unity of Jerusalem—a non-starter for serious final-status negotiations—could signal willingness to negotiate on all the core issues in good faith. The White House claims that “President Abbas noted that he was ready to begin negotiating immediately,” and i24NEWS reports the Trump Administration has proposed a direct meeting between the leaders for as early as July.
More immediately, however, the Israeli government is reportedly considering a plan to cede certain Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Israel’s Channel 10 has just reported that Israel’s National Security Council—a department of the Prime Minister’s Office—is exploring a “secret” plan to exclude Kafr Aqb and the Shuafat Refugee Camp from Jerusalem’s municipal borders. The plan would place both areas—already on the “wrong” side of the Security Barrier—under an independent local council. They would still be considered part of Israel—just not part of Jerusalem. It is unclear whether this plan is connected to a detailed initiative presented to the Prime Minister months ago by Likud legislator Anat Berko to sever Arab neighborhoods from the Jerusalem municipality. According to the Jerusalem Post, not only did Netanyahu not dismiss the plan out of hand, he asked to retain a copy of the map and that Berko not reveal it to the media. Diplomatic sources privy to Netanyahu’s recent discussions with President Trump, continued the report, said that both Jerusalem and Washington have proposed transferring municipal responsibility for some of these areas to the Palestinians.
The fact that Netanyahu repeated the same phrase verbatim in three speeches suggests the wording was no coincidence. The reports of plans to relinquish control over certain Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem suggest the timing appears to be no coincidence either. The Israeli government has zero interest in dividing the core of Jerusalem, or abandoning the Temple Mount and Western Wall. But as for stepping away from formal responsibility for Kafr Aqb, the Shuafat Refugee Camp, and similar neighborhoods—Netanyahu has just very subtly kicked the door slightly ajar.