Sep 26th 2013

Facing The Truth About Jerusalem

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

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. Yet there are those who believe that, regardless of American prodding, no agreement is likely to emerge because neither Prime Minster 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 their respective publics, especially the radicals among them, can accept which run 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 that all residents and visitors are treated honestly and equally. It is the only model.”

Whereas there is little argument among most Israelis and a substantial number of Palestinians that the city should remain “united,” what Barkat is saying is that Jerusalem cannot be divided by walls and fences and remain united as the eternal capital of Israel.

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 their 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 which 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.

The Palestinian position:

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 Mohammad visited the site where the Al-Aqsa Mosque was subsequently erected.

One other difficulty that adds to the psychological impediment in relation to Jerusalem is the Palestinians’ sense of ownership, which has been uninterrupted for centuries. The 1967 Six Day War and the capture of Jerusalem created a tripled sense of urgency to restore the old city to its majority occupants.

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.

Neither Israel nor the Palestinians can uproot the other from the city. 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 demographic reality in East and West Jerusalem makes a division of the city impossible. While Palestinian residents are largely concentrated in East Jerusalem, over 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 and various municipal services such as gas lines and electricity.

Israel has understood that such structural ties make a future division of the city impossible, and although the Palestinians also understand that the city will not be physically divided, they seek to establish their capital in the eastern portion of the city.

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.

Since uprooting either Israelis or Palestinians from their current place of residence in Jerusalem is almost unthinkable, an agreement should be reached that would not disrupt their way of life.

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.

A new Palestinian municipality will be established to administer the eastern part of the city that falls under its jurisdiction and a joint commission representing their respective municipalities would work to facilitate issues that may arise as a result of cohabitation that may affect either or both sides.

Whereas each 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.

To prepare for a solution along these lines would require concerted efforts by various civil society leaders and other public institutions. It is not a minute too soon to start such efforts.

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 in USCongress: “…with creativity and with good will, a solution can be found.”

Former Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters in late 2010 that “West Jerusalem and 12 Jewish neighborhoods [east of the city] that are home to 200,000 [Israeli Jewish] residents will be ours. The Arab neighborhoods in which close to a quarter million Palestinian live will be theirs.”

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 about 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.

This concept is possible today more than any other time before because of the revolution in communications that allows for the dissemination of information to millions within minutes.

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.

The only prerequisite is that the participants will have to agree in principle that Jerusalem must serve as the capital of two states, without which peace may never be achieved.

To be sure, to resolve the future of Jerusalem and the other conflicting issues between Israel and the Palestinians requires far greater public engagement. Jerusalem in particular can serve either as a tinderbox of potential violence or a microcosm of coexistence and peace.

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.

Moreover, testing each other’s resolve and commitment is central in an environment that is subject to challenges and instability. Israeli and Palestinian leaders must fully cooperate and never allow radicals on either side to undermine such a historic agreement.

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.

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