by Nadav Shragai
The Palestinians call the offer of an alternative capital in the village of Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem, the "slap of the century," conveniently overlooking the fact that they rejected much more generous offers made by previous Israeli governments.
Abu Dis could have been the Palestinians' point of entry to the
Temple MountPhoto: Moshe Shai
The abandoned Palestinian parliament building in Abu Dis is 2.8 kilometers (1.7 miles) east of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City. The Knesset is the same distance west of the holy site.
Back when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was serving as deputy to PLO founder Yasser Arafat, Abu Dis was known as "the second Jerusalem," a temporary substitute before the anticipated permanent division of the city. At the time, Abbas was willing to swallow this bitter pill, and even see Abu Dis decked out with various Palestinian government institutions.
But today the Trump administration is trying to put Abu Dis back on the table as part of the "deal of the century," and Abbas is denigrating it as the "slap of the century."
The penny dropped for Abbas when he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman in December. In that meeting, he heard for the first time that U.S. President Donald Trump was offering the Palestinians Abu Dis instead of Jerusalem as their capital. That was when Abbas decided to hand the current White House its walking papers, which he did a month later.
Abbas sees the proposal as embarrassing, not to say humiliating. After two Israeli prime ministers – Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert – put the division of Jerusalem on the table (Barak at Camp David in 2000 and Olmert in 2008), the offer of Abu Dis as a capital comes a little too late. Jerusalem was nearly in their grasp, and now someone is pushing them back in time.
It is unclear who gave the Americans the idea to revert to the Abu Dis option. What is clear is that the village's not-very-distant-past status as an alternative to Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, especially Abbas' place in that option, gave the Americans grounds to assume they should give it another try.
Twenty years ago, Abbas and Israeli former minister Yossi Beilin worked together to draft their famous document of "understandings." It was not an agreement, merely an unofficial document that sketched out parameters for a permanent peace deal. When it came to Jerusalem, the two suggested expanding the city and establishing an umbrella municipality that would be managed by two sub-municipalities: Jewish Jerusalem and Arab Al-Quds.
Abu Dis was given a prominent place in these understandings. Israelis were already calling it "the second Jerusalem." The Palestinians saw it as another rung on the ladder but began treating it as an alternative, temporary seat of government. They set up a number of Palestinian governmental entities there: the headquarters of the Palestinian security establishment; local government offices; and the crown jewel, a five-story parliament building with an opulent 132-seat hall for the members of the Palestinian Legislative Council and roomy offices – never occupied – for the heads of the PLO and the Palestinian parliament.
But fate has a sense of humor: The Palestinian parliament building was built on land owned by the Jewish National Fund, a third of which lies within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, but Israel ignored that. The JNF land, along with another 450 dunams (112 acres) of Jewish-owned land purchased by residents of the Mea Shearim neighborhood 90 years ago, remains outside Israel's security barrier, which divided Abu Dis into two unequal sections based on the municipal boundaries established in 1967. Ninety percent of the town was transferred to the civil control of the Palestinian Authority and classed as Area B (jointly administered by the Palestinian Authority and Israel) and only 10% is still within the borders of Jerusalem and the Green Line.
On the Israeli side of Abu Dis, some 60 dunams (15 acres) of the land originally bought by the people of Mea Shearim remain. Jewish financier Irving Moskowitz purchased some of it and housed eight Jewish families there. For 15 years, they have been living on the Jewish side of Abu Dis, in an area relatively sparsely populated by Arabs. For years, the families have been waiting in vain for the implementation of the Kidmat Zion (Advancement of Zion) plan, which calls for the building of 300 housing units on the Jewish land of Abu Dis. The plan is stalled in the Jerusalem District Planning and Construction Committee, as per orders from the political echelon and American pressure.
The main reason the plan is frozen is the Trump administration's decision to reintroduce the Abu Dis option. Even before the Beilin-Abbas understandings, Abu Dis was part of a peace plan that international officials and various Israeli governments had seriously considered that would create a safe "corridor" under Palestinian sovereignty that would connect the Jericho area to the Temple Mount. The corridor would consist of a road, a tunnel, and possibly even a bridge, and Abu Dis was to be its eastern entry point and safe crossing point for Palestinians going to Al-Aqsa mosque. One of the earlier versions of the plan even floated the possibility that the corridor would fall under Saudi or Jordanian sovereignty.
When Barak won government in 1999, he tried to give Abu Dis to the Palestinians and make it part of Area A, under full Palestinian control. Spiritual mentor to the Shas party Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Ariel Sharon worked together and managed to torpedo that move. Events played into their hands: A day before the territory was supposed to have been handed over to the Palestinians, a wave of violence that foreshadowed the Second Intifada broke out. Then-Labor and Social Welfare Minister Eli Yishai suggested that Barak hold off a few days on transferring the territory to the Palestinians, and the temporary hold became permanent. Abu Dis is still part of Area B.
Nineteen years later, the Palestinians' demonstrated offense at the attempt to reintroduce the idea of Abu Dis as their capital throws two issues into sharp relief: First, there is apparently zero chance of implementing the idea as long as Abbas is in power, and second, the gap between the Abu Dis plan and the far-reaching concessions that Barak and Olmert were prepared to make on Jerusalem is immense. The Palestinians have yet to realize that in the era of Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the parameters have changed.
In 2000, the Barak government agreed in principle to a framework plan proposed by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, who suggested handing the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem over to the Palestinian Authority and leaving the Jewish neighborhoods (including those built after the 1967 Six-Day War) under Israeli sovereignty and control. Eight years later, a mere five days before he resigned as prime minister, Olmert showed Abbas a map of his plan to divide Jerusalem. The map, like the Clinton framework plan, split up Jewish and Arab neighborhoods and divided the oversight of the cradle of holiness – including the Old City – between five countries: Israel, the U.S., Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and a future Palestinian state.
Olmert hoped Abbas would accept the plan. He planned to present it immediately for approval by the U.N. Security Council, the European Union, and both houses of the U.S. Congress, then sign it at the White House. But Abbas rejected the most generous plan any Israeli leader had ever offered.
Now that the idea of Abu Dis as the Palestinian capital has been raised again, Abbas is using it to serve two purposes: as a way of goading the U.S. as part of his face-off with Trump after the president in December recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and as a measure showing how far the Palestinians of today have moved away from the idea after rejecting much more generous offers from Barak and Olmert.
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