Should Jewish electricity or Arab electricity illuminate the holy city? Behind that seemingly abstruse question, which was addressed in February by the Israeli Supreme Court, lies a fundamental difference in approach between the Israeli right and left toward relations with Jerusalem's Arab population.
The Arab-owned Jerusalem District Electricity Co. currently serves east Jerusalem and a sizable portion of the occupied West Bank. Although the bulk of its 70,000 customers are Arab, it also serves 17,000 Jewish households in east Jerusalem as well as Israeli military camps and settlements on the West Bank. Arab electricity even lights the Western Wall, holiest site in Judaism.
In attempting to take over the company's concession, the Likud coalition government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin said the company was inefficient and providing inadequate service to its clients. The government's real motives, however, were transparently political, as the Supreme Court itself would declare.
Concern has been expressed in government circles at the security implications of an Arab firm, owned almost entirely by Jordanian citizens, providing power to Jewish neighborhoods and military installations. A blackout could be created deliberately, they noted, as a prelude to acts of terrorism or an outbreak of war.
Journalist Yehuda Litani, who covers Arab affairs for the Israeli daily, Haaretz, sees in the government's action an attempt to prevent the formation in the Arab sector of any sizable economic or political power base that could challenge Israeli rule.
With more than 400 employees, the Jerusalem Electric Company is the largest Arab industrial enterprise in east Jerusalem or the West Bank.
The Supreme Court ruled that the government was legally entitled to purchase the company's concession in east Jerusalem but not in the West Bank, which is not part of Israel. Despite its affirmation of the government's rights regarding acquisition of the east Jerusalem concession, the high court urged the government to reconsider that decision.
By making it possible for the Arab-owned company to appeal again if the government nevertheless decides to requisition, the court opened the possibility of dragging out the case until the June 30 national elections and the possible departure of the Likud government.
The division of Jerusalem in 1948 left the only power plant on the Israeli side of the city, and for two years the Jordanian side lived largely by kerosene lamps until a new plant was built there. With the city's reunification in 1967, Jerusalem had two power networks. The Israeli side was linked to an efficient national grid. The Arab side was dependent on small and outdated generators.
When the development of large Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem created a greater demand than the Arab company could meet, the government ordered the Israel Electric Co. to tie into the east Jerusalem company's power lines in order to supply it with electricity in bulk. Most of the electricity the Arab company s upplies today is indeed "Jewish" electricity.