In President Donald Trump’s Peace to Prosperity plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the issue of Jerusalem was treated as one would have expected from the man who recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moved the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv, and repeatedly declared that he had taken Jerusalem “off the table,” presumably meaning that he did not see the city’s status as something that now had to be negotiated between the two sides. The Trump plan created a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, but only in three non-contiguous neighborhoods that were not part of historic Jerusalem and only became incorporated into the city following Israel’s capture of the city in 1967 and its massive expansion of the municipal boundaries. These three neighborhoods—Kufr Aqb, the Shuafat refugee camp, and Abu Dis—are so undesirable to Israel that the first two were placed entirely on the other side of Israel’s security barrier despite being wholly inside of the Jerusalem municipal line, and Abu Dis (which is partly inside of the municipal barrier and partly in Area B of the West Bank) is bisected by the security barrier. 

Abu Dis has long been floated by Israel as a potential capital for a future Palestinian state precisely because nobody really views it as part of Jerusalem, and it contains a building that was constructed—though never completed—during the height of the Oslo process meant to house the Palestinian Legislative Council because the town is part of the Palestinian Authority’s Jerusalem governorate. Trump’s designation of Abu Dis as a future Palestinian capital was meant to signal that this was the closest that the Palestinians would get to Jerusalem, and also signaled that Israel did not consider Abu Dis to be Jerusalem either, meaning that ceding it entirely would not constitute dividing Jerusalem. For critics of the Trump plan—myself very much included—one of the signs of its fundamental unseriousness was taking three unconnected neighborhoods on the wrong side of the security barrier, cobbling them into a capital that required traversing Israeli territory to get from one side to the other, and pretending that the Palestinians could then say their capital was in Jerusalem.

A checkpoint by the Israeli security barrier near Abu Dis by Justin McIntosh, Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 (License linked to image)

Yet as absurd as it seemed it would be for anyone to see this as threatening to Jerusalem’s status as the eternally undivided capital of Israel, apparently it was not an absurd threat to everyone. Last week, just in time for Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), the Jerusalem District Building and Planning Committee approved initial plans for 400 new homes in a Jewish enclave inside of Abu Dis to be named Kidmat Zion. The plan was pushed by Ateret Kohanim, a group that purchases buildings for Jews in the heart of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and is best known for owning and populating Beit Yonatan, a seven-story building in Silwan that is under an unfulfilled evacuation order and is named after Jonathan Pollard, the American citizen who was convicted and jailed in the U.S. for spying on Israel’s behalf. Ateret Kohanim wrote that the Abu Dis neighborhood “can gradually change its [Abu Dis’] image to Jewish…The significance of establishing and developing the neighborhood is to create a shield for Jerusalem against Palestinian ambitions.” 

Lest that be unclear, it means that in Ateret Kohanim’s view, even a Palestinian capital in Abu Dis is too close for comfort and must be prevented by establishing facts on the ground. And the Jerusalem District Building and Planning Committee apparently agrees that it is imperative to battle for Abu Dis, thus putting 400 Jewish homes smack in the middle of a town of 15,000 Palestinians, one that is partially in Area B of the West Bank—where the PA has administrative authority and not one Jew lives—and that Israel deemed so irrelevant to its interests that it built the security barrier straight through the middle of it. Thus a place that Trump, the great defender of Jerusalem, designated as the capital of a Palestinian state, and that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also had no problem ceding when on the day the Trump plan was unveiled he described it as an “exceptional peace plan” that “calls for our ancient capital, Jerusalem, to remain united under Israel’s sovereignty,” is now deemed to be too critical to allow the Palestinians to have it.

President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu at the unveiling of the Peace to Prosperity plan, 28 January, 2020

It should be noted that this is not the first time that Trump’s vision for Jerusalem was deemed by the Israeli government to be too weak for its tastes. Atarot, the site of the defunct Jerusalem airport abutting the separation barrier that keeps Kufr Aqb walled off from the rest of Jerusalem, was designated in the Trump plan as a tourist zone specifically for Muslim tourism to Jerusalem holy sites. Nevertheless, in February 2020—less than a month after the Trump plan was unveiled—the Israeli government submitted a plan to build a new 9,000-unit Haredi neighborhood in Atarot. While the plan was subsequently put on hold following pressure from the Biden administration, it has not been shelved, and three months ago MKs from the current coalition toured the site in order to raise awareness of the plans to build there and signed a pledge to support the proposed neighborhood’s construction.

Kufr Aqb, East Jerusalem by Hagai Agmon-Snir, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

While the inadvisability of the Atarot plan becomes obvious to most people who set foot on the site and immediately grasp what a security nightmare it will be to put a large new neighborhood in literal spitting distance of the largest Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem—one whose 13-story buildings tower over the security barrier behind which it is confined and where crime and resentment are seething due to the municipality’s complete neglect—one need not visit Abu Dis to see the radicalism at work in this new plan. The notion that putting a large enclave of Jews in the middle of the town—with all of the heavy security that will entail and the inevitable friction that will ensue—is necessary because not to do so puts Jerusalem’s status at risk would be funny if the people making the claim weren’t so deadly serious. This is a place that right-wing Israelis have long pointed to as the appropriate Palestinian capital precisely because it is not Jerusalem, and yet now it is the newest front in the battle over Jerusalem’s indivisible integrity. Who would have imagined that three years after the Trump plan’s heyday, it can now be criticized not only for contemplating a (non-viable, territorially pockmarked) Palestinian state, but for not being strong enough on Jerusalem.

Signs abound of the recklessness of those currently in charge of Israel’s affairs everywhere one looks these days. The new plan for Abu Dis may be the most absurd, most far-reaching, most mind-bending sign of all. One can only hope that with all that Israelis already have to worry about, this type of thing does not fly below the radar until it is a fait accompli.