Facing the Truth About Jerusalem
Those who are privy to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations appear to be more optimistic than ever before about the prospect of reaching an agreement. But there are also those who believe that, regardless of American prodding, no agreement is likely to emerge because neither Prime Minister Netanyahu nor President Mahmoud Abbas are in a position to make the necessary concessions to make peace and politically survive.
That said, the future of Jerusalem remains the epicenter of a negotiated settlement, now or at any time in the future, and could make or break any deal. The respective populations, especially the radicals among them, cannot accept an agreement that runs contrary to their deep beliefs.
For these reasons, there is an urgent need to seriously engage in public discussions about the future of Jerusalem because sooner or later the Israelis and Palestinians must be prepared to accept the inevitable—a united Jerusalem, yet a capital of two states.
In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat (who is running for re-election) insisted that, “There is only one way this city can function – it is a united city (where) all residents and visitors are treated honestly and equally. It is the only model.”
He is imploring Israeli officials, presently engaged in the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, “to take any talks about dividing Jerusalem off the table.”
One critical thing that Barkat seems to ignore is that there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless much of the old city in East Jerusalem, which is largely inhabited by Palestinians, becomes the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Not only will the Palestinians reject anything less, but all Arab and most Muslim states will not accept any peace agreement with Israel that excludes Jerusalem.
The Israeli position:
From the perspective of many Israelis, it is inconceivable to surrender any part of Jerusalem to the jurisdiction of any other peoples or an international governing body.
This unique attachment and affinity to the holy city, which has for millennia symbolized the Jewish sense of redemption, created a powerful motivation to capture the city when it came within Israel’s grasp during the Six Day War in 1967. The fall of Jerusalem in the wake of the war remains an unmatched event and came to symbolize Jewish absolution.
This historic development created a renewed awakening that vindicated the religious premise that was embedded in the Jewish psyche for centuries. The realization of what was believed to be a far-fetched dream under the most difficult of circumstances was now seen as the work of the Almighty, which no force can alter.
Due to religious convictions tied to Islam’s third holiest shrines in Jerusalem — the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock — Muslim leaders will not compromise on East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Muslims around the world believe that Muhammad made his Journey from Mecca to Masjid Al-Aqsa (literally, “furthest mosque”) in Jerusalem before he ascended to heaven. Although the Al-Aqsa Mosque was built long after the death of the prophet, Surah 17:1 states that Muhammad visited the site where the Al-Aqsa Mosque was subsequently erected.
The reality on the ground:
The religious, demographic, physical, psychological, and political realities facing the Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem today require that it be an undivided — yet shared — city, exemplifying Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.
The demographic reality in East and West Jerusalem makes a division of the city impossible. While Palestinian residents are largely concentrated in East Jerusalem, more than forty percent of East Jerusalem’s residents today are Jews who live east of the so-called “seam line” that once divided Jerusalem prior to the 1967 war.
In addition to this demographic mix, having annexed the city immediately following the 1967 war, Israel has developed the east and west of the city as a single city with a network of roads, transportation systems, and various municipal services such as gas lines and electricity.
To dismiss the conflict over Jerusalem as simply one among the religious is to ignore the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ shared psychological and emotional ties to the city as the core of their national aspirations.
The Israelis will support the removal of some settlers from communities outside of the major settlement blocs in the West Bank but will never support the removal of Israelis from the Jerusalem environs. Similarly, Palestinian leaders will never relinquish their demand for the capital of the Palestinian state to be in East Jerusalem.
This consensus view requires one to consider an approach to ending the conflict by sharing the sovereignty of the city and mutually recognizing the endgame, especially now that the negotiations have resumed.
I am not presumptuous to think that the following measures represent a blueprint that would facilitate an agreement over the future of Jerusalem. Several of the following ideas about the future of the city have been discussed at length. What has been and still is missing is a concerted public discussion about the various aspects of any agreement.
This is particularly important because both the Israeli and Palestinian publics must be prepared psychologically to accept the inevitable — a united city but a capital of two states — and conversely provide public support to the leaders to reach such an agreement. At the same time, radical elements from either side that might resort to any means (including violence) to scuttle such an agreement, believing that they are following God’s will, must be disarmed.
Any agreement must begin by institutionalizing what is on the ground. Given the demographic inter-dispersement and the infrastructure of the city, very little can change to accommodate the creation of two capitals. Jewish neighborhoods should be under Jewish sovereignty and Palestinian neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty.
The holy shrines should be administered in an independent manner by representatives of their respective faiths. A special regime should be established by mutual agreement for the Mount of Olives and the City of David.
A joint security force should be established to ensure public safety and the integrity of the holy shrines. Each side will administer their respective holy sites and allow for mutual visitations by mutual agreement.
There should be no physical borders or fences to separate East from West Jerusalem, and movement of people and goods will remain free as is currently the case. The border between the two capitals will be a political border only for the purpose of delineating municipal responsibilities.
Palestinians who end up on the Israeli side (unless they are Israeli citizens) would enjoy permanent residency in Israel, but vote or be elected in Palestine; similarly, Israelis within the Palestinian jurisdiction of the city would be permanent residents of Palestine and exercise the right to vote and be elected in Israeli elections.
Whereas each state has their own internal security forces, joint units will coordinate and cooperate on all security issues that may occur to prevent violence from either side against the other and reach an agreement on how to treat criminals should they commit a crime and flee to the other side.
First, officials must articulate creative approaches. Political will and courageous leadership can generate vast public support by leaders changing their public narrative from one that regards the city as indivisible under exclusive Israeli sovereignty to a shared city, one that symbolizes peaceful coexistence.
Ideally, current and former public officials should publicly support the “one city, two capitals” solution. Prime Minister Netanyahu (if he really believes in a two-state solution) should reiterate and further expand on what he has stated to the U.S. Congress: “…with creativity and with good will, a solution can be found.”
Second, the role of the media is of paramount importance to promote the idea of “one city, two capitals.” Liberal Israeli media outlets in particular should attract public attention to the need for a solution to the future of Jerusalem, without which there will be no peace. More and more editorials and in-depth analyses can and should be written about the reality that both Israelis and Palestinians must inevitably face.
Third, the absence of political will and leadership requires civil society to take the lead. NGOs, including think tanks, student organizations, women’s groups, and labor unions should begin a concerted dialogue about the future of the city.
Finally, public forums should be created to discuss the pros and cons of Jerusalem’s future as a capital of two states. Although this solution may well be inevitable, still debating other possibilities is critical if for no other reason but to demonstrate why other options are not likely to work. Such dialogues could have, over time, a significant impact on Israeli and Palestinian public opinion.
The participants (in small groups of 15-20) should especially include religious scholars, imams, rabbis, and priests representing all three monotheistic religions, and historians with a focus on the Middle East. They must be independent thinkers, holding no formal position in their respective governments, and committed to finding a peaceful solution in the context of coexistence.
It is important to note that regardless of how urgent a solution to Jerusalem may be, any agreement between the two sides should be implemented over a period of no less than three years to allow for the development of new structural, political, and especially security regimes.
To all the skeptics I must say without undue optimism: under conditions of real peace and good intentions, anything is possible. Under conditions of hostility and distrust, little, if anything, is possible.