Jerusalem must exemplify coexistence

by Alon Ben-Meir
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Email: ; Web: www.alonben-meir.com
11.10.2010

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 serving as a microcosm exemplifying Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. Jerusalem not only represents the largest urban concentration of Israelis and Palestinians coexisting alongside one another, but also the epicenter of the conflict that divides them. The leaders on both sides must counter the rejectionists at every level to create a solid foundation in Jerusalem for a lasting two-state solution.

The demographic reality in east and west Jerusalem makes division of the city impossible. While Palestinian residents are largely concentrated in east Jerusalem, and Jewish residents in west Jerusalem, they are interspersed throughout the city. Over forty percent of east Jerusalem residents today are Jews, and nearly forty percent of the city's Israelis live east of the so-called "seam line" that once divided Jerusalem prior to the 1967 Six Day War. In addition to establishing this demographic mix, Israel has deliberately developed the city in a concerted manner that has united the eastern and western neighborhoods. Various municipal services, such as gas lines and electricity, are shared across the city. Israel has understood that such structural ties make a future division of the city impossible. Indeed, today Palestinian leaders do not call for a physical division of the city, rather for sovereignty over a Palestinian capital in the eastern portion of the city. As such, any solution to Jerusalem must take into account that the city is physically united in every way.

Furthermore, Jerusalem's religious significance makes it holy to the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, a fact which can never be changed short of a catastrophe. No faith can claim sovereignty over the holy places of another. Just as the guardians of the Dome of the Rock are and must remain Muslims, so should the caretakers of the Western Wall be Jews. The familiar Jewish call to return "next year in Jerusalem" has lasted millennia. Islam's veneration of Jerusalem also spans numerous centuries. Efforts to delegitimize Judaism or Islam's affinity for the city as a holy place deny the unmitigated religious attachment of both peoples to the city.

However, the affinity for Jerusalem on both sides also transcends religion. Secular Israelis and Palestinians value Jerusalem as more than a place revered by the religious, but as the rightful capital of their respective nations. To further dismiss the conflict over Jerusalem as simply one among the religious is to also ignore the reality that both peoples in totality share psychological and emotional ties to the city as the epicenter of their national aspirations.

Recognizing these realities, it is a foregone conclusion across the Israeli spectrum that Jerusalem cannot and will not be divided. No Israeli politician could survive the political upheaval which would follow an attempt to structurally divide the city. If peace and security is assured, Israelis will support the removal of settlers from communities outside of the major settlement blocs. They will never support the removal of Israelis from the Jerusalem environs. Adding this political reality to the aforementioned facts, it becomes inconceivable that the city could be divided in any physical way. This consensus view requires one to consider an approach to ending the conflict by sharing the sovereignty of the city in order to exemplify Israeli-Palestinian coexistence and peace.

The solution to Jerusalem therefore requires an institutionalization of simple realities: Jewish neighborhoods should be under Jewish sovereignty, Palestinians neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty; and the holy shrines should be administered in an independent manner by the appropriate faiths. In this way, rather than creating contiguous land masses divided by a network of walls and tunnels-an impossible proposition-the city would represent the quintessential representation of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and coexistence. In a recent interview with the Newspaper Haaretz, Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defense Minister, has let it be known that Israel has plans for dividing Jerusalem. "West Jerusalem and 12 neighborhoods (east of the city) that are home to 200.000 (Israeli) residents will be ours" Mr. Barak said in the interview. "The Arab neighborhoods in which close to a quarter million Palestinian live will be theirs. There will be a special regime in place along with agreed upon arrangements in the old city, the Mount of Olive and the City of David."

Inevitably however, there will be some Israelis who will continue to live in areas that would fall under Palestinian control and some Palestinians will continue to reside in Israeli controlled neighborhood. By their own choice these Israelis and Palestinians would become permanent residents in their current places of residence but citizens of their respective countries where they can exercise their political rights to vote and be elected.

Creating such a scenario where the city will be politically-rather than physically-divided demands one central component: strong and sound internal security cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. As long as both sides agree on security arrangements-for example, what happens if a crime is committed in one sovereign area and the criminal flees to the other? -Then other issues can be resolved as well. Joint efforts to administer necessary municipal services would be simple to arrange should Israel's chief concern-security-be effectively addressed.

Even so, the idea of establishing Jerusalem as a shared city representing the potential of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence is met by fierce rejectionists. First, there are those who want it all. They deny the legitimate claims of the other side and work to undermine peace efforts at every turn. These rejectionists will work against any kind of peace efforts and will have to be addressed in any arrangement regardless of its makeup. Second, there are those-particularly in Israel-who want to maintain status quo. These critics do not recognize the reality that the status quo is untenable. Without a reasonable solution to Jerusalem, the deep disagreements over the future of the city will continue to serve as a tinderbox of potential violence, as the recent violent clashes sparked in the Silwan neighborhood demonstrates. Third, there are those who support the concept of physically separating the city similar to its pre-1967 status. But the aforementioned realities make such a physical separation impossible. Finally, there are those who question whether Israelis and Palestinians can genuinely work together to administer municipal services and keep the peace in such an urban environment. My answer to this concern is rather simple: under conditions of real peace and amity, anything is possible; under conditions of hostility, little, if anything, is possible. Political will and courageous leadership can generate vast public support and meaningful coexistence in Jerusalem and beyond-but it must first be tried.

Rather than serve as a core issue of division, Jerusalem can indeed serve as a symbol of coexistence and peace. To achieve this goal, the leaders on both sides must get serious about recognizing the realities on the ground in Jerusalem, and addressing the rejectionists to a meaningful two-state solution. If they do, the city aptly called "Ir Shalom" or "City of Peace" can deservedly live up to its name.

*A version of this article was originally published by the Jerusalem Post on October 8th, and can be accessed at http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=190501

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