“We have been saying for 50 years that Jerusalem is united, but we don’t behave as if it’s united.”

Thus said President Reuven Rivlin at a meeting on Thursday of parties involved in a project to reduce the socioeconomic gap between east and west Jerusalem.

In June 2014, the government decided to upgrade personal security and to spur economic development in Jerusalem for the benefit of all its residents – including Palestinians and Israeli Arabs living in east Jerusalem.

After much research – and many disputes with the Finance Ministry – an agreement was reached between the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the Joint), the Municipality of Jerusalem and various government ministries to embark on a three-point pilot project aimed at reducing the socioeconomic gap between east and west Jerusalem, with the initial focus being on education, employment and neighborhood infrastructure.

Representatives of all the parties concerned – the municipality, the Joint, the police and some private philanthropists associated with the project – met on Thursday at the residence of the most prominent of all native Jerusalemites, President Reuven Rivlin.

The president, who was a soldier during the Six Day War, recalled that after the victory, he and his friends would often roam the streets of east Jerusalem and talk to the local population, some of whom frequently asked what Israel was going to do with them.

Rivlin regretted that for fifty years, Israel had more or less neglected them, and he was very pleased that the government is now not only willing but is actually committed and sees it as an obligation to turn the hopes and dreams of young east Jerusalemites into realities.

A census taken in 2014 indicated that, in round figures, the population of east Jerusalem numbered 315,700 souls, amounting to 37.1% of Jerusalem’s population and 20% of the population of Israel. They comprise the largest demographic concentration of Palestinians between Jerusalem and the Jordan River.

“We have been saying for 50 years that Jerusalem is united, but we don’t behave as if it’s united,” said Rivlin, adding that the Arabs of east Jerusalem have lived in limbo for 50 years.

He said that the decision of the government to close the socioeconomic gap was one of the best that it has ever made, but emphasized that decisions are not enough – they have to be implemented.

Noting that till now there have been “forlorn generations” in east Jerusalem, Rivlin urged that Israel “should not give up on future generations.”

Commenting on the changing but strong political realities, Rivlin remarked that there are new attitudes and new incentives. As for improving education and employment opportunities and creating better community infrastructure, Rivlin said that it was not just a matter of funding; he insisted that it can work only if there is a viable partnership between the residents of east Jerusalem and all of the Israeli entities involved. It has to be a meaningful partnership based on trust, he said, “because without trust, nothing works.”

Rivlin also had high praise for the police – including the Border Police – for maintaining law and order, and for putting their own lives on the line in order to safeguard the lives and safety of all the residents of Jerusalem.

This prompted a burst of spontaneous applause throughout the room and a broad grin on the face of Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh, who of late has heard a lot of criticism against law enforcement personnel.

ZE’EV ELKIN, the Minister for Jerusalem Affairs – who announced yesterday his decision to run for mayor – heaped praise on outgoing mayor Nir Barkat, saying that major changes had taken place in the city under Barkat’s administration. It was not fair to place the whole burden of caring for the capital on the shoulders of the municipality, he said, which was why he had lobbied other ministries to put their shoulders to the wheel.

He was also gratified that the Finance Ministry had given the green light to the east Jerusalem project.

Elkin echoed Rivlin’s contention that the secret of success lies in partnership and cooperation.

Elkin said that by improving conditions in east Jerusalem, especially in the work force, there would inevitably be an economic upswing which would be beneficial to the whole country. He pointed out that, currently, 78% of east Jerusalem’s population does not enjoy regular employment.

Barkat declared himself to be a “full partner in improving the quality of life of the residents of east Jerusalem,” but at the same time stressed his support for the police and the defense establishment, who are working 24/7 to prevent terrorist activities.

He regretted that for many years, east Jerusalem neighborhoods had not been properly zoned, and there had been streets with no names, so residents did not even have a legal address. The municipality has done a lot to amend this situation, he said, but the work is not yet complete.

He has conducted surveys to determine which youth and which parents are interested in the Israeli bagrut (matriculation exam) versus the Arabic bagrut. The results surprisingly showed that 40% of parents want their children to do the Israeli bagrut because they believe that it will lead to better career opportunities.

He also underscored that the municipality is doing much more than before with respect to social welfare, tripling both the budget and the number of social workers in east Jerusalem.