The future of Jerusalem is on the table. Conventional wisdom has been to leave the Jerusalem issue until the end of negotiations.

Jerusalem is a center piece of any agreement, yet it is also the power-keg of dynamite that can blow any potential peace agreement into pieces.

Both parties claim Jerusalem as their national capital. Israel asserts that Jerusalem is the cradle of Jewish civilization, the holiest city for Jews and the focal point for Jewish existence.

Jews all over the world turn towards Jerusalem in prayer and inside of Jerusalem face the Temple Mount in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City.

The first direction of Muslim prayer was Jerusalem, but later changed to Mecca. It is from Jerusalem where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven to receive the Quran. Jerusalem is mentioned twice in the Quran as al Aqsa – the distant mosque and Beit al Maqdas (the holy house), in reference to the Holy Temple.

Jerusalem is the third most holy city in the world for Muslims and according to their tradition, the obligation of Haj (pilgrimage) is not complete until after Mecca and Medina the pilgrim completes the journey with a visit to Jerusalem.

The positions between the parties in Jerusalem are diametrically opposed and seem to be unbridgeable. The official policy of the Israeli government is that Jerusalem is and will always be the eternal undivided capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

Jerusalem will never be divided again, as it was for almost 19 years between 1949 at the end of Israel’s war of independence and the Palestinian Naqba (the catastrophe) and the June 1967 war. In March 1949, King Abdullah I of Jordan annexed east Jerusalem and the West Bank of the Jordan River to the Hashemite kingdom and walls and barbed wire fences divided Jerusalem right through the middle of the city, cutting off the Old City of Jerusalem and the Jewish holy places from Israel and the Jewish world.

After the lightning speed six-day victory in 1967 the Jewish state tour down the walls and fences and reunited the city vowing that it would never be divided again. Israel then annexed all of east Jerusalem and expanded its borders in the east, placing the entire city under Israel’s sovereignty and law.

Like the Jordanian annexation in 1949, Israel’s annexation was rejected by the international community and view in contravention to International law. The Palestinians’ position is that all of east Jerusalem, the territory occupied by Israel in 1967, must become the capital of the State of Palestine.

This position officially includes more than 250,000 Israelis who now live in that area in neighborhoods built by Israel since 1967 on what formerly Palestinians consider to be their land.

The Palestinian position is that the entire Old City of Jerusalem, including the Jewish Quarter and the Jewish holy places, should be under Palestinian sovereignty in a peace agreement.

Jerusalem is the most segregated city in the world. Israelis and Palestinian essentially dwell in separate parts of the city.

Recognizing this, in December 2000, US president Bill Clinton offered his own parameters for the Jerusalem issue. Clinton suggested, “What is Jewish to Israel, what is Arab to Palestine.”

The places where Jews live would be under Israeli sovereignty and the places where Arabs live would be under Palestinian sovereignty. This is doable and for the most part, could even be acceptable, because even after more than 45 years of “unity” under Israeli control, the most underdeveloped areas of Jerusalem are the Palestinian neighborhoods which Israel does not really care about and where the residents boycott municipal elections choosing not to play a role in the decision making regarding their own communities as long as they are under Israeli control.

The most difficult issue in Jerusalem is the less than one-square kilometer of the Old City inside the Ottoman walls.

There are four quarters in the Old City: Armenian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish.

It could be possible to adopt the Clinton parameters to the Old City as well so that the Jewish Quarter would be under Israeli sovereignty and based on demography, the other three quarters would be under Palestinian sovereignty.

It could also be possible to adopt the kind of proposal prime minister Ehud Olmert offered in 2008 in which an international body composed of Israel, Palestine, the US, Jordan and Saudi Arabic would govern the Old City on behalf of its residents.

Another similar proposal was made by a group of Jerusalem experts working with the University of Windsor in Canada in which an international management company would administer the Old City.

If the Old City is the heart of the conflict of the Jerusalem issue, then the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif is the heart of hearts. It is on this spot that Jews believe their Holy Temple was located and its remains are below the Mosques which are now there.

It is here where Jews believe that Abraham bound Isaac for sacrifice and where Muslims believe that Ibrahim did the same for his eldest son Ismail.

For Jews, it is here that the Holy Temple will be rebuilt by God in the days when the Messiah comes. Interestingly, it is Jewish religious law (Halacha) which may actually provide the formula for the peace agreement.

The overwhelming majority of rabbis, ultra-orthodox as well as the Israeli state-sponsored official rabbinate, forbid Jews from ascending the Temple Mount. They claim that it is not known where the exact location of the Holy of Holies is – the place where the High Priest of the Temple would enter in the final moments of the Yom Kippur prayers to ask forgiveness to God, literally face-to-face with divinity.

In order not to desecrate that holy ground, Jews are ordered not to enter the entire Temple Mount until the Messiah comes.

Muslims, officially, according to Islamic religious law (Sharia) have no problem with Jews ascending the Mount and even praying in the Mosques there. In the current political context it could not happen though, because it would be a political nuclear bomb. But after there is peace, it could transpire.

So the political solution for the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif is to formalize the current status quo whereby the Muslims (the Palestinians) control the Temple Mount on top and Israel controls the Western Wall below where Jews now pray as close to the Mount as possible. Both parties would agree to limit their sovereignty and control by not tunneling, constructing, digging or damaging in anyway the entire compound without mutual agreement.

If after the Messiah comes, God should desire to change the arrangement, everything would be possible.

For the time being, the makings of an agreement are possible.

So now, we are left with two main questions: How can the city of Jerusalem be divided on the basis of demography and still function; and when should the issue be negotiated? The only way that Jerusalem can survive as an urban space where real people live and work is for it to remain physically united and open. Jerusalem will die if it is torn to pieces with walls and barbed wire fences. The pre-condition for Jerusalem to be undivided physically and open is for there to be real personal security within the city.

But this is a precondition for all aspects of Israeli-Palestinian people.

Real security in Jerusalem will have to include three main components: (1) Each side’s security and police forces will have to take full responsibility for security and law and order within the territory under its own domain.

(2) There will be a need for very robust and active cooperation, including joint forces between the Israeli and Palestinian security and police forces in Jerusalem.

(3) Lastly, there must be a significant third party monitoring component ensuring that both parties are fully implementing their obligations as well as assisting in building the trust necessary for the joint missions and providing a real-time, on-the-ground dispute resolution mechanism.

Finally, when should Jerusalem be negotiated – at the end or in the beginning of the negotiations? Going against conventional wisdom, I have always advocated putting Jerusalem on the table up front. Borders cannot be negotiated without arriving to Jerusalem. Land swaps are meaningless without dealing with the delineation of borders of sovereignty in Jerusalem.

Security arrangements have little validity without confronting security in Jerusalem where the most terror attacks took place during the second intifada. National symbols and holy places cannot be dealt with anywhere in the area without dealing with Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the microcosm of the entire conflict and the most sensitive issue on the table.

If the issues in conflict in Jerusalem can be resolved in negotiations, all other aspects of the negotiations will be easier. If Jerusalem cannot be resolved, there can be no Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Since most aspects of the Jerusalem issue have been negotiated in the past and since there have been so many workable proposals designed for Jerusalem by Israeli and Palestinian experts who have worked together on finding them, it is more possible to reach an agreement on Jerusalem than most people believe.

The solutions as described above enable both sides to have their national capitals in Jerusalem. Jerusalem will remain an open city united for all to come and visit while clearly designating separate sovereignties on maps and on the ground. Jerusalem’s holy places will be open with free access to all and each community will retain its control over its most sacred spaces while enabling dreams and future aspirations to remain within the realm of prayer.

Peace in Jerusalem is the key to Israeli-Palestinian peace. That key is on the table and waiting to be used.

The writer is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book,
Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel, has just been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew.

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