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 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 city’s future because sooner or later the Israelis and Palestinians must accept the inevitable — a united Jerusalem, yet a capital of two states.
In a recent interview, Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat 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 many Israelis and 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.
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.
The Palestinians will reject anything less, and all Arab states will not accept any peace agreement with Israel that excludes Jerusalem.
The Israeli position:
From the Israeli perspective, it is inconceivable to surrender any part of Jerusalem. 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 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 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.
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 mosque was built long after the death of the prophet, Surah 17:1 states that Mohammad visited the site where it was subsequently erected.
Adding 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 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 1967.
In addition to this demographic mix, Israel has developed Jerusalem 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.
To dismiss the conflict over Jerusalem as simply religious is to ignore the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ shared 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 evacuating Israelis from the Jerusalem environs. Similarly, Palestinian leaders will never relinquish their demand for 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 now that 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. What has been missing, however, is a concerted public discussion about the various aspects of any agreement.
Both the Israeli and Palestinian publics must be prepared psychologically to accept the inevitable and provide 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 must be disarmed.
Any agreement must begin by institutionalizing what is on the ground. Given the demographics and the infrastructure of the city, very little can change to accommodate the creation of two capitals. Therefore, Jewish neighborhoods should be under Jewish sovereignty and Palestinian neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty.
A joint security force should be established to ensure public safety and the integrity of the holy shrines through coordination and cooperation. Each side will administer their respective holy sites independently by representatives of their faiths and allow for mutual visitations by agreement. A special regime should be established for the Mount of Olives and the City of David.
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, and vice versa for Israelis.
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 due to cohabitation.
To prepare for a solution along these lines would require concerted efforts by various civil society leaders and other public institutions, which must begin immediately.
First, officials must articulate creative approaches. Political will and courageous leadership can generate public support by leaders changing their narrative from one that regards the city as indivisible under Israeli sovereignty to a shared city that symbolizes peaceful coexistence.
Ideally, officials should publicly support the “one city, two capitals” solution. Prime Minister Netanyahu should reiterate and further expand on what he stated in the U.S. Congress: “…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 this idea. Liberal Israeli media outlets in particular should attract public attention to the need for a solution to the future of Jerusalem.
Third, NGOs, 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 Jerusalem’s future as a capital of two states. Although the solution may well be inevitable, debating other possibilities is critical 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 (small groups of 15-20) should include religious scholars and leaders 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.
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 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. Jerusalem 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 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.