Michel Warschawski is a journalist, writer, peace activist and founder of the Alternative Information Center (AIC) in Jerusalem, the first joint Israeli-Palestinian organization. The AIC is a news organization that disseminates information, research, and political analysis on Palestinian and Israeli societies as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while promoting cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis. Warschawski, son of the main rabbi of Strasbourg, is one of the first Israeli’s who built alliances between Israeli’s and Palestinians in the 80’s. He was one of the first peace activists who engaged in direct talks with Palestinian armed groups. As the border lines hardened, he became targeted by Israel’s notorious intelligence agents. Finally he was arrested, incarcerated, and interrogated for 20 days. We had a talk with him about the past, present and future of Jerusalem, one of the main obstacles to peace between the Israeli’s and the Palestinians.

Warschawski has a special bond with Jerusalem. At the age of 16, he moved from Strasbourg to the holy city to study the Talmud. He lives in Jerusalem since 1965, for almost 45 years. From the very first until today he is in love with the city, but the present state of the city saddens him deeply. 41 years ago East Jerusalem was annexed to Israel. Over the years, the facts on the ground changed the city completely.

Warschwaski: The charm of the city before the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 was that it used to be quite disconnected from the rest of Israel. It was very different in its geography, but also in the way the people were living the political environment. Jerusalem used to be a small provincial city without pretensions. Now it is a suffocated city with one third of its population living under occupation and one third being settlers in East Jerusalem, a part that Israel has illegally annexed. Jerusalem should be a sovereign Israeli city and a sovereign Palestinian city. That would mean the end of any Israeli presence in East Jerusalem. That is my dream.

Is it realistic? How do you think Jerusalem will look like in ten years?
Warschwaski: Unfortunately, there will be no Jerusalem. Or at least not the Jerusalem we all love. Jerusalem is being destroyed by the drive to build more and more settlements in East Jerusalem. What was in my eyes the most beautiful city in the world, is now a huge real estate project, a building site. More and more apartments are being bought by rich foreign Jews, who do not live here. Big parts of the city are become ghost neighborhoods. The city is being destroyed by the policy of the settlements and by the speculations of real estate agents. I think UNESCO should declare Jerusalem as a city in danger. According to the UN Jerusalem should be a international city, under the responsibility of international community . This is not only because of political reasons, but also simply to protect it as a city. Not as a Israeli or Palestinian city, but simply as a city. It is a city in danger.

Did you ever feel the hope there could be a solution?
Warschwaski: Israel had a tremendous opportunity during the Taba negotiations in 2001, when Arafat was ready for some kind of exchange of territory helping Israel to solve the problem of the settlers in the settlements blocs around East Jerusalem. These settlements are in an area that Israel calls Jerusalem, but that is actually part of the occupied West Bank (Maale Adumim, Givat Zeev, Pisgat Zeev,…). The Palestinians were ready to exchange this territory, where most of the Israeli settlers are housed, for an equivalent of territory in Israel. The affinity the Palestinians have with Jerusalem does not include Pisgat Zeev or Maale Adumuim. That’s why Arafat was able to make this offer. He offered a part of the West Bank, not a part of East Jerusalem. But it was a one-time offer. I doubt any other Palestinian leader in the near future will have the legitimacy to make such an offer to Israel that would be accepted by the Palestinian people.

If Israel would’ve accepted the offer, Israel would have been released from the need of evacuating hundreds of thousands of settlers. Now it’s too late. It will take much more time to solve the Jerusalem issue now. It’s like buying a car, you cannot keep on bargaining. Once there is a lowest offer, under which you cannot go. Any expansion of settlements going on as we speak, further endangers a final solution.

Israel is putting at risk the future of the settlement blocs by expanding them?
Warschwaski: Exactly. The E1 area is the main challenge. E1 is the area between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim, one of the biggest settlements deep in the West Bank. E1 remains the last open space in the West Bank on which a modern city of East Jerusalem could be further developed, which could connect East Jerusalem to the rest of the West Bank to make it a viable capital of Palestine. E1 will be built up though with Israeli settlements according to the new Israeli plan, thereby making that scenario impossible. That’s why Palestinians will no longer be in a position to repeat the offer of Arafat to give the settlement blocs to Israel, because they would need something in return, being an East Jerusalem connected to the West Bank as their capital.

For this reason, the recently announced plan to build thousands of new homes in the settlements around East Jerusalem would put the future of the settlement blocs in danger, because it would eliminate the possibility of land swap. The dream of a solution in which no settlement would have to be destroyed would become obsolete. It will be ‘either or’: either settlements will have to be destroyed, or there will be no solution. E1 is a disaster for keeping the settlement blocs under a final agreement. Architects and planning specialists like Bimkom are warning against E1. They say: “If you want a solution for the settlement blocs around East Jerusalem at the cheapest possible price, don’t build in E1.”

The proposed route of the wall coincides with the municipal borders of Jerusalem, what is behind this?
Warschwaski: The question of the wall and its route, is not specific to the issue of Jerusalem. It is trying to fix a potential border, integrating most of the settlements blocs. The Israeli government denies until today that the wall is for annexation purposes. But it is clear that the route for the wall is answering the needs of the annexation. Borders will be negotiated in due time. This is still what Israeli government says when there are European diplomats on visit. In reality it was not accidental how the route was chosen.

Prime minister Olmert has the two state solution in mind. Under what pressure is he to expand settlements in East Jerusalem?
Warschwaski: The reasoning of Olmert is: ‘As long as we are not obliged to freeze, the longer time will pass, the more we can try to keep and expand it.’ Sharon was the architect of this policy that is still carried out today: ‘What ultimately will fix our borders is, where we are planting our last tree.’ This is the policy of facts on the ground. The more settlements we build, the more bargaining power we’ll have. We are pushing the border as far as possible.

How come Israel keeps on creating illegal facts on the ground without any considerable pressure from the international community or from the Israeli public?
Warschwaski: Why there is no pressure from the international community, I should ask you. Why are your governments in Europe not trying to implement what is their own official position, including the official position of US, that the annexation of East Jerusalem was never recognized? Somehow this attitude reflects the way the international community approaches the whole Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The EU and the US are not able to put necessary pressure on the Israeli government in order to make it abide by international law. Israel is left in a state of impunity, which is the last thing Israel deserves or needs. In that sense, the international community carries a huge responsibility for the continuous Israeli violations, concerning East Jerusalem in particular.

But at Annapolis, the Israeli government agreed to freeze settlement construction under US pressure. Today still the US is pretty openly criticizing Israel’s settlement policy. What kind of pressure is needed in order to make Israel stop the expansion if they don’t even listen to the US?
Warschwaski: Facts, not words. The official position of the US, that the annexation is illegal and harms the peace process, has never impressed Israel. The only time the Israeli government has frozen the settlement expansion, was when the US cut the money or withdrew loan guarantees during the old Bush administration. Immediately the Israeli government decided to stop the expansion. The whole Israeli public became obsessed by this pressure. It provoked the end of the Shamir government and new elections. The Israeli public will only be aware when a decision of expanding new settlements will have some impact on its life because of international pressure.The US should say they mean business and not only make statements to calm down the Egyptian or Jordanian governments. It has to be a concrete ultimatum: ‘Stop construction or we cut the money.’ I guarantee you, the day of the ultimatum there will be no more construction.

What about the Israeli public? It is not holding its leaders accountable to what they are doing in East Jerusalem either.
Warschwaski: The Israeli’s, like any other public worldwide, will not act against actions and decisions of their government if those actions do not have a direct impact on their lives in economical terms, in terms of security and in terms of international isolation. Israel can occupy and settle East Jerusalem without any price to be paid. Why should the Israeli public be aware? There is no direct reason or interest to protest. The Israeli public does not react and shape opinions according to what may happen, but to what is actually happening. And the general feeling in Israel is ‘we can go with it, no one will put any kind pressure on us now, why should we bother? This summarizes well the position of most of the Israeli public.

‘By increasing the pressure on Israel, you alienate the Israeli public instead of keeping it close. By improving relations with Israel, you also increase the confidence of the Israeli public in the EU.’ What would you say of this argument?
Warschwaski: I’ve heard this argument before, it is simply nonsense. It is a propaganda argument that doesn’t reflect the reality. All through the last 40 years, every time there was some kind of pressure from the outside, the same evening the government was discussing on how to act. The Israeli government and the Israeli public are extremely sensitive to international criticism and the international public opinion, believe me. For example: the same day the EU decided to put the issue of products from the settlements disguised as products from Israel on the agenda, the Israeli government convened a meeting to decide how to react to this. 

How does the Alternative Information Center suffer from this context?
Warschwaski: The duty of the Alternative Information Center is not only to convince the public that its government is violating fundamental rights of Palestinians, but also that there will be a price to pay in the future. This is why I am very angry towards the international community: Israel can violate almost any international obligation it has, and still not be sanctioned. On the contrary, they are embraced by the EU and the international community. This makes the international community co responsible for the policy of occupation and annexation. When the Israeli public doesn’t see a price to pay, it is very hard for us to do awareness raising.

Do you see a role for human rights organizations like Amnesty International in keeping the pressure high, especially on a highly difficult issue such as Jerusalem?
Warschwaski: Absolutely. The Israeli’s are far from indifferent to the reports of Amnesty. Reports of Amnesty reach the Israeli public through opinion makers, the media, the politicians, the intellectuals, … They are very much aware of these reports. The media is also usually giving quite good coverage to Amnesty reports. The work of human rights organizations is necessary to make sure the Israeli’s understand that whoever is violating the rules of the international community, has to be punished or at least has to be considered as someone who doesn’t behave well. This is why reports of Amnesty are important, because they are reminding the Israeli public that everything is monitored.

Amnesty International should say: “Amnesty might not have the authority to punish Israel, the UN today might still be weak when it comes to enforcing international law, but everything is registered for history and you may have to pay one day.” You cannot imagine how sensitive the Israeli generals are today for The Hague Tribunal. Every time before they go to Europe senior officers who may be accused of war crimes are checking with a special department in the ministry of Defense the laws and regulations in the country if someone would make a complaint for war crimes. The international community does have levels of pressure, through the work and monitoring of human rights organizations. It is a lie that the Israeli’s are indifferent to international criticism. It is propaganda that international criticism is making the Israeli’s more tough.

If there are 200.000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem, which is according to Israeli law part of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, then why can’t the Palestinian population influence the policies of the Jerusalem municipality?
Warschwaski: Because they boycott the elections. Since 1967 the Palestinian population has not as a whole, as a community participated in Jerusalem municipal elections. They don’t accept elections under occupation. They lose an influence on what’s going on in Jerusalem, yes. But it’s a Palestinian decision and it’s a good one. The questions is: how can you be most efficient in defending your rights. Participating or not? In my opinion, the price to be paid by participating in the election (creating confusions, creating even a greater division in the Palestinian population, greater than it already is) is higher than the benefit from such elections.

In the western media, also in Belgium, we see a lot of bad vocabulary on the settlements in Jerusalem, that they are neighborhoods.
Warschwaski: Part of political struggle is a struggle on vocabulary. How you call everything. When you stop calling the West Bank ‘occupied territory’ and you call it ‘Judea and Samaria’ (the traditional Biblical name), then you have lost more than just words, you have lost the battle. Speaking about Jerusalem, it is extremely important to make it clear and stress it again and again, it is occupied East Jerusalem.

June 26th, 2008, Skype interview