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This speech convinced me Israel's wave of violence is so much worse than it looks

Israeli security forces in Jerusalem.
Israeli security forces in Jerusalem.
Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

On October 6, as Jerusalem began its descent into some of its worst street violence in years — with Palestinian knife and car attacks killing several Israelis, worsening clashes and protests that have ended with a number of Palestinians dead, and families from both sides keeping their children home from school out of fear they might not make it back — one of the world's foremost experts on Jerusalem arrived in Washington, DC.

Danny Seidemann, executive director of the Israeli organization Terrestrial Jerusalem, spoke that day at a lunch for journalists hosted by the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Seidemann, who is often quoted by journalists and sought by politicians for his insights on Jerusalem's role in the Israel-Palestine conflict, had an alarming message: What's happening in Jerusalem is much more serious than many realize, and in ways that may not be obvious. The city's descent shows the Israel-Palestine conflict may be nearing the "point of no return," past which peace is no longer possible. What follows is a transcript of Seidemann's remarks, lightly edited for clarity.


I'm usually the opposite of a prophet of doom. Many journalists see Jerusalem as a fast track to a Pulitzer Prize, and peddling the apocalypse of Jerusalem is perceived as an easy way of doing that, so there's a tendency to overstate the volatility of Jerusalem. But Jerusalem is a far more stable city than its reputation. I spoke about two weeks ago when the violence in Jerusalem was on the ascendancy, and people who know these issues very well were saying, "Ah, this happens every year around the Jewish High Holidays. This is just another perennial round of skirmishing. We see this all the time."

I fear that my mission in Washington this time is to say this is not a routine round of skirmishing. What we are seeing is something significant in ways that go well beyond tomorrow's headlines. I do not want to sound hysterical about this. I will not answer whether this is the third intifada or not; that will just get us involved in a side discussion that I think has very little benefit. But I think it is important to understand why this is different. I think I could have said as much six weeks ago, two months ago, three months ago, and for the past 15 months. However, within the last month the violence in Jerusalem has become far more visible and convulsive, particularly concerning events in and around the Temple Mount, and is finally receiving the attention it merits.

Since July of last year, we have been already in the throes of a popular uprising in East Jerusalem, widespread in a way that we have not witnessed since 1967. One of the things that I'm asked about now all the time, "Is this unprecedented?" I think this is. That they shut down the Old City to the Palestinians is unprecedented. Never happened before since 1967. I really think I know Jerusalem well. I think I know my government's policies well. I am never surprised. They're so predictable. But I was surprised now, because never in my worst imagination could I think that we would say "off limits" to Palestinians, and we did, or that we would turn Palestinian neighborhoods into physical enclaves.

The major question is: "Why is Jerusalem burning?" But even before attempting to answer it, what is fascinating is that nobody in official Israel is asking it. Nobody. Nobody in the political arena with the potential exception of [Ayman] Odeh [an Arab Israeli lawmaker who leads a coalition of Arab Israeli parties] and the United Arab List is openly asking the question. From the perspective of official Israel, the commitment to the article of faith of an undivided Jerusalem is so much a catechism, so unassailable, so much impervious to empirical reality that you can't ask that question.

Because if Jerusalem is axiomatically the undivided capital of Israel, obviously you have to shut down empirical reality in order to maintain that belief, and that means that things in Jerusalem are as they should be. The Palestinians have it as good as ever they will — they are ingrates if not, and only bad people act as poorly as they are. We will break them, so much so that at no point, with the occasional exception of President Rivlin, nobody in official Israel has spoken to or addressed the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. It is always about what we will be doing to them.

How are things unprecedented? In recent years, I have taken numerous outings in Jerusalem with many of you. We couldn't do that today. Ninety percent of the places that I went with you in East Jerusalem I can't go now unless I am in a diplomatic vehicle, or accompanied by a Palestinian friend or colleague.

Those of you who are asking whether the two-state solution is still alive, Jerusalem gives a Jerusalem answer. In Jerusalem it is still alive because 99 percent of the population of Jerusalem lives the border of the two-state solution. We live the border of the two-state solution. Israelis do not go to East Jerusalem, full stop, including Israelis such as myself. I spent the second intifada visiting places like the Shuafat [Palestinian] refugee camp with my buddies. I can't do that today.

Palestinian restaurant workers in West Jerusalem, for example, have no choice now but to go to throw out the garbage in pairs because it's too dangerous for them to go out singly, because they're assaulted, okay? The minor curiosities of the undivided capital of Israel.

The cognitive border that exists is pretty much where the politicians would put the border [between Israel and an independent Palestine], were the border to be negotiated in good faith.

This does not apply to the 2,600 settlers living in settlement enclaves in East Jerusalem, in places like Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, the Mount of Olives. They are living in reality as well, but it's not the reality of the two-state solution. It's the reality of the one-state consequence, which is Belfast [as divided after the Northern Ireland conflict] at its worst. You cannot enter most of these areas without risk. Sheikh Jarrah has been a bit of a question except in convoys. In Silwan, there's a new settlement on the other side of the wadi, from Wadi Hilweh/the City of David.

I was recently at the bottom of the hill, beneath the Old City, and I saw three large border patrol Land Rovers and a platoon of border patrol troops gathering as if before a military operation in a staging area. They were there in order to accompany the settler vehicle to the new area, and so now that's the routine. Jerusalem is now at the moment saying, "This two-state border is what can be, but just barely." It's also a cautionary warning: This Hebronized reality we are witnessing in Silwan is what will be when the two-state solution is lost. Take a hard look at the future.

This is also borne out by the statistics. During the second intifada, Israel would arrest between 100 and 200 people a week in the West Bank in security-related offenses. Israel arrested 270 Palestinians in East Jerusalem during the entire seven-year period, which is remarkable. That means that every two weeks we would arrest more people in the West Bank than we had in seven years in East Jerusalem. And when the Palestinians of East Jerusalem did participate in the acts of terror, they were particularly devastating. They know well they know how to get around. The Silwan cell was particularly deadly. But they often didn't.

Compare that to now. I stopped counting, but I think somewhere around Sukkot there was an item in the newspaper that Israel arrested 240 people in East Jerusalem since Rosh Hashanah, half of whom were kids. There was on the order of 1,400, 1,500 arrests between July 1 and the end of the year. More than 700 of them minors, kids, under the age of 18, which means that in a six-month period Israel arrested more than one-half of 1 percent of all of the Palestinians boys under the age of 18 in Jerusalem. The neighborhoods of Jerusalem between July and January were on fire every night. The levels of violence declined a bit, but they never disappeared, and they traveled from place to place.

What's been remarkable about this whole thing is, until this recent round of violence, how oblivious Israelis have been.

For me, the classic picture of this popular uprising was a year ago in August at the Beer Festival at the old train station. The Beer Festival is the one opportunity Jerusalemites have during the course of the year to pretend we're as normal as people living in Tel Aviv. So you have yuppies of all ages sitting there drinking boutique Israeli beers, which by the way are great. You're sitting there, and you really pretend, "Hey, this is the good life. This is like Tel Aviv." Then in the distance you hear, "Pop, thud." If you have good sense of smell, you get this sour whiff as the wind carries the tear gas, because 300 yards away down the hill in Silwan there are stun grenades, tear gas, fireworks, arrests, and the folks in Silwan are completely oblivious to what's happening at the train station.

There was a point where it was almost that these spontaneous vehicular terrorists, all inspired by Hamas, are re-sanctifying the Green Line because they were doing it all on the Green Line. Israel was successful in containing the violence to the Palestinian areas. I have some pictures on the cellphone of how Sur Baher, where we were, was completely sealed off. It's also another indication of how divided Jerusalem is and something that explains a good deal of denial, and we were in deep denial until the events of the last few weeks.

I would say things are unprecedented in the following way. Number one, the Temple Mount. It's not merely a question of the existing arrangements. What we're seeing starts at the Temple Mount but also spreads out in concentric circles. It is the establishment of a physical embodiment of a biblical narrative, which is already fanning the flames of a religious conflict. What we're seeing here are the seeds of transformation of a national political conflict, which is fueled by religion on occasion but is a political conflict that can be solved, into a religious conflict that cannot be solved. Don't misunderstand me. This is not a lecture on "keep religion out of Jerusalem." Saying keep religion out of Jerusalem is like saying keep culture out of Florence, and finance out of Manhattan.

What we are witnessing is the ascendancy of those faith communities whose claims are absolutist and exclusionary. They are each other's best friends, whether it's the nastier wing of the Brotherhood who deny any Jewish connection to Jerusalem, the Temple Mounters, or the end of days dispensationalists such as [American evangelical leader] Pastor Hagee. What we're seeing is the marginalization of the traditional religious establishments from the historical churches to the Sharia courts to the chief rabbinate who understand very well that Jerusalem is a stable city when everybody's interest is protected in some way, and Jerusalem can speak in multiple voices. These views are not necessarily rooted in liberal values of pluralism. Centuries of history have taught them that the hegemony of any one faith community becomes a living hell for everyone else.

It is clear that what we witnessed on the Temple Mount is a significant change. In my experience, nothing guarantees an outbreak of violence as does a real or perceived threat to the integrity of sacred space. Nothing. By the way, it need not be a real threat. It could be an imaginary threat. But that explains why violence erupts; it doesn't explain why the violence is sustained. The Temple Mount is invariably the detonator. It's not the explosive device. We have to go beyond that. The second dimension of this, I would say, along with the transformation of the Temple Mount or the transformation of the conflict is the perceived loss of the two-state solution. The kids who go out on a nightly basis don't read the Wall Street Journal or Vox; sorry, but they don't.

In the environs of Jerusalem, the threat to the two-state solution is more than a clear and present danger. We know where the border goes. It's not that I'm saying that I think that's what should be. I'm not saying this is what I'm advocating. I'm saying this is the only border in which you can anticipate an Israeli and Palestinian national leader agreeing to the same thing at the same time. This is where it is. And if we know where that is, we also know how many settlers will have to be relocated into Israel in order for there to be an agreement. That number was 116,000 five, six years ago. Today it is in excess of 150,000. It is growing by 5,000 to 10,000 a year. If you're only talking in economic terms, you're saying that financial costs of relocation in a permanent status agreement go up by $350 million a year.

Now, there are those who say the two-state solution is dead. You also have people like [former US officials on Israel-Palestine] Dennis Ross and Aaron Miller who say not only is the two-state solution not dead, it's immortal, because the settlements that go up can come down. Those who say the two-state solution is dead and those who say that's immortal share one thing. They're postmodernists: What's happening on the ground doesn't matter. I believe that what happens on the ground matters because there's going to have to be a mortal, real-life leader in Israel capable of expending the political energies necessary to relocate. I don't know whether we've reached the point of no return or not — but even if we haven’t, we can’t be far.

For me, the point of no return on the two-state solution is a bit like crossing the Pacific Ocean in a steam liner; you know that you're going to cross the International Date Line. It's there. It's very consequential. Whether you've passed it or not, on one side of the line it's yesterday, on the other side of the line it's tomorrow, but when you get there, you're not going to know whether you've passed it. The surge in settlement activities clearly has created a sense of despair the likes of which we haven't seen on the Palestinian side, a lack of faith in political processes as such, and a sense of deep denial on the Israeli side with my friends in Tel Aviv saying, "Settlements? What settlements? I'm not a settler. Israel doesn't settle the West Bank. It's them there settlers. It's not us." So this combination of despair and denial clearly is contributing to this round of violence.

So you have two threats to the two-state solution basically: one being the religious dimension and the other being the territorial dimension. There's something new here as well. You don't have one popular uprising in Jerusalem. Basically you have two of them. One is taking place on the street, and one's taking place on the Temple Mount. What's quite remarkable is that the violence on the street is being led by 14-, 15-, and 16-year-old kids. Palestinian parents are scared shitless, because when their kids go out, they don't know whether they're going to see them again. On the Temple Mount, much of the confrontations have been led by women.

Now bear in mind that Palestinian society continues to be in many ways a patriarchal society, and you have the major political event of the last decade at least being led by kids and women. There is a vote of no confidence toward the heads of households in this, which I think presents the key as to why this is happening. It is saying, "You, dad, father, husband, are incapable of giving us, delivering to us the fundamental thing that every head of household owes his family, and that's a future." There is a sense of no future. There have been times in this conflict since 1967 in which occupation has been a disease in remission. I'm not going to wax eloquent on the charms of occupation even under circumstances like that, but there were things that were bearable, and there was a veneer of normal. And it can persist for a long time.

We are now witnessing a stage of occupation, particularly under this new government, in which occupation is metastasizing. It is aggressive, and you're seeing 15-, 16-year-old kids going up in front of border patrol police and provocatively baring their chests, as if to say, "Go ahead, shoot me." There's a lot of machismo and play-acting in this, but it's basically saying, "What do we have to lose?" This is not localized. Hatred in Jerusalem has been personalized to levels that we have not witnessed since 1967, the absolute visceral disgust with Israeli rule.

A few days ago, Israel demolished two more homes of terrorists. I can tell you what virtually every Palestinian is thinking: "When are they going to demolish the home of the Abu Khdeir murderers and when are they going to apprehend the Duma murderers?" [Abu Khdeir and Duma refer to recent instances of violence against Palestinian civilians.] It is the sense that we are dust. We don't count, and nobody gives a shit about us. By the way, that is not limited to official Israel. Much of the same is felt toward the Palestinian leaders and the rest of the Arab world. When you take those together, you take the religion, the despair, and the lack of a political horizon, you've got a perfect storm, and that's what's been happening. It's not an accident that the second intifada broke out six weeks after the collapse of the Camp David Summit in 2000.

It's not an accident that the violence broke out last summer two months after the collapse of the Kerry Initiative [Secretary of State John Kerry’s US-led peace effort]. Again, it's not the direct cause. Jerusalem has stabilizing and destabilizing factors at play. Never before in my memory has there been such a total absence of any sense of hope or political horizon, so that all of the destabilizing factors in Jerusalem become more volatile and more dangerous in the absence of a political process [toward a peace deal] whether the kids read the Washington Post or not.

That leads me to my final point, which is the broader context of where we are. We haven't seen any kind of engagement on Israeli-Palestinian issues since April 1 of last year after the Kerry talks, except trying to keep things afloat during the war last year in Gaza. The [Obama] administration is in the throes of a reevaluation of American foreign policy. There are many people making very cogent and compelling arguments both within the administration and outside the administration to the effect of, "Walk away. There is only grief in this for you, Mr. President. Walk away. You have limited energy. You have limited power. The United States has limited power. Do not squander it on a basket case. You're not going to get any forward movement under Netanyahu, much less an agreement. Take your energies where policy can matter, to the issues of ISIS, Ukraine, and Syria certainly."

It's important to understand just how compelling an argument that is. It's a good argument. Don't make light of it. It may not be good for my business, but it's a good argument. Having said that, if my analysis [of the situation in Jerusalem] is correct, I think it's a significant contra to the argument of walking away, because if I'm right, the implications of walking away are stark.

We're not going to make it to Inauguration Day in 2017 against a backdrop of a Swiss pasture. Netanyahu has not opened the settlement floodgates recently. That may not last, and it is quite possible that by the time we reach, under very normal circumstances, Inauguration Day in 2017, the two-state solution will, by all accounts, have been lost, because it's not immortal and will be under the watch of this president and the two-state solution is lost.

If I'm correct in my analysis and this [violence] is not going to disappear, it doesn't necessarily mean that there's going to be a third intifada, or we're going to see we're going to see this persist indefinitely, but what it does mean is that this is not going away. Violence can subside. The periods between the eruptions or the conflagrations will be shorter, and each round will more convulsive and more violent. That's what's in store for us. If that is indeed the case, walking away, you're not going to be able to get these events under control merely through policing and dealing with the symptoms. You're not going to be able to do it.

There are good discussions going on as we speak between Israeli and Palestinian security people. The levels of cooperation remain good. That is not guaranteed to last, and even if it does that is insufficient to deal with the destabilizing waves that are out there. It's not going to be enough. So walking away has the potential of creating a situation where this administration will turn over an Israel-Palestine to the next administration that is reminiscent of the Iraq that the Bush administration turned over to Obama: dysfunctional, chaotic, hemorrhaging, violent, and not fixable.

So it goes to the horns of dilemma here. We're not going to get anything done. You can't get anything positive under these circumstances, addressing the core issues, and you can't walk away, but the consequences of disengagement are unthinkable.