Jerusalem as Engine for Peace?

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hopes to drive the peace process forward through a deal on Jerusalem, but the right wing is preparing to block the initiative.

15-leslie (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
In mid-October, five weeks before the scheduled Annapolis peace parley, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, inviting the wrath of the right, hinted that he was prepared to make concessions on Jerusalem. Although there had been hints from him and his close confidants before, it was the first time he had made such a clear statement. During a special Knesset session in memory of Rehavam ("Gandhi") Ze'evi, a hawkish cabinet minister gunned down in Jerusalem by Palestinians in October 2001, Olmert referred to the map of the city Ze'evi had drawn up immediately after the 1967 Six Day War, placing Arab East Jerusalem and 28 West Bank villages inside the capital. "The map of the city Gandhi drew up is the one which was approved by the government and the Knesset on June 27, 1967 in their decision to unify Jerusalem and extend its territory... It is to that decision that we owe the splendid, bustling [Jewish] neighborhoods like Ramot, French Hill, Ramat Eshkol, Givat Hamivtar, Pisgat Ze'ev, Armon Hanatziv, Har Homa and Gilo on the outskirts of Jerusalem, not to speak of the Jewish quarter of the Old City. But was it also necessary to include the Shuafat Refugee Camp, Sawahra, Walajeh and other [Palestinian] villages and to determine that this is Jerusalem?" he challenged. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Ze'evi, then the IDF's deputy operations chief, thought in terms of defending the city against any future threat. He, therefore, included surrounding hilltops and as much territory as he feasibly could within the city limits. Before the war, Jewish West Jerusalem covered an area of 38 square kilometers and Arab East Jerusalem just six square kilometers. Ze'evi's map added another 64 square kilometers of what until then had been part of the West Bank. It is the Arab neighborhoods in this peripheral area, which was never part of any biblical or historical Jewish Jerusalem, that Olmert's rhetorical question suggested could and should be handed over to the Palestinians to help form the capital of their state in the making, the city they call "al-Quds." For months, Olmert's confidant Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon has been arguing forcefully that it is in Israel's interest to compromise on Jerusalem. Since the perimeter Arab neighborhoods were never part of Jerusalem, handing them over to Palestinian rule could hardly be construed as "dividing the city," he maintains. On the contrary, by handing them over, he says, Israel would make significant gains: • Placing over 200,000 Palestinians in Palestinian Jerusalem would alter the demographic balance in Jewish Jerusalem in Israel's favor. (There are about 720,000 residents in the Jerusalem area, about 250,000 of whom are Arabs.) • Israel would no longer be obliged to pay millions of shekels in social benefits for the Jerusalem Palestinians, nor would it be responsible for services and infrastructure in the eastern part of the city. • Readiness to cede part of Jerusalem would help create conditions for peace with the Palestinians. • Establishing two capitals would pave the way for international recognition of Jewish Jerusalem as Israel's capital. "If we reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the Arab world and the international community according to which the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem will be recognized as the capital of Israel and the Arab neighborhoods as part of the Arab capital, will that be a bad deal?" Ramon declared after a stormy cabinet session in early October. In the meeting, Ramon's call for compromise was met with a barrage of criticism from cabinet hawks. The one exception was Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the hawkish Yisrael Beitenu, who declared that he, too, was ready to cede the Palestinians parts of Jerusalem - like the Shuafat refugee camp - on the condition that the move was part of a wider territorial and population exchange. But ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas's Eli Yishai and hawks in Olmert's own Kadima party slammed Ramon for even contemplating the possibility of dividing Jerusalem. "Jerusalem is not a piece of real estate and nobody has the authority to redivide it," snapped Housing Minister Shaul Mofaz, who is fast establishing himself as the leader of the hawkish opposition to the prime minister within Kadima. The heated domestic debate over Jerusalem's future reflects the fact that, in the run-up to Annapolis, the city's future is shaping up to become the key to progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking process. Ramon and other doves see agreement on Jerusalem as a way of kick-starting the process by giving the Palestinians confidence that a final peace deal is attainable. Their thinking is that the border issue can be resolved relatively easily through land swaps, and that Israel can trade concessions on Jerusalem for Palestinian concessions on refugees. Ramon's basic assumption is that once the Palestinians know a deal on Jerusalem is in the offing, they will come through on the other core issues. He says that while Palestinian negotiators have made it plain that there can be no deal without Jerusalem, they have also intimated that they are ready to compromise. But it will take much more than a handover of far-flung perimeter neighborhoods to move the process forward. The real challenge for the would-be peacemakers is the one-square kilometer of the Old City and the "holy basin," including the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and other Jewish, Moslem and Christian holy places. Here Ramon proposes a "special regime," under which, presumably, neither Israelis nor Palestinians would exercise sovereignty. Other Israeli experts suggest different solutions, ranging from shared Israeli-Palestinian sovereignty to full-fledged international control. But the experts acknowledge that it will not be easy to find a compromise a majority of Israelis and Palestinians will accept, given the fierce opposition from hawks on both sides. If there is one thing experts canvassed by The Report agree on, it is that without hands-on American involvement in detailed negotiations and strong American browbeating of both sides, there will not be any deal. Indeed, in the preparations for the meeting in Annapolis, Olmert finds himself navigating between Palestinian needs and American pressure on the one hand, and the Israeli right on the other. His dilemma is how to find a formula on Jerusalem that will give the Palestinians hope, without bringing his coalition down. Ultimately, if he follows the Ramon line, he will be adopting the same tactic then-prime minister Ehud Barak used at the Camp David summit in July 2000: Jerusalem as the engine to drive the peace process forward. Early on at Camp David, President Bill Clinton and Barak decided to try to break the deadlock by focusing on Jerusalem. The Americans presented a set of bridging proposals: The Palestinians would get sovereignty in the Muslim and Christian Quarters of the Old City and Israel would get sovereignty in the Armenian and Jewish Quarters. Israel would get the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, while the Palestinians would have "custodianship" over Muslim holy places and a symbolic, sovereign presidential compound for then-leader Yasser Arafat on the Temple Mount. The outer Palestinian neighborhoods would go to Palestine, whereas the inner Palestinian neighborhoods would remain under Israeli sovereignty, but would have their own Palestinian municipal authority. The ploy failed. Arafat rejected the package outright. Five months later, Clinton presented new proposals for Jerusalem that gave the Palestinians a better deal. The so-called "Clinton parameters" of December 2000 provided for two capital cities, Jerusalem and al-Quds; all Arab neighborhoods, inner and outer, would be be under Palestinian control; the Palestinians would have sovereignty over the Temple Mount and most of the Old City; and Israel would have sovereignty over the Jewish Quarter, as well as the Western Wall and its "holy space." Again, Arafat rejected what was on offer. The Israelis were, to say the least, not enamored of the idea of Palestinian sovereignty over the holy Temple Mount, the site of the biblical First and Second Temples. A month later, in 11th hour talks in the Egyptian resort town of Taba, Israeli officials introduced the notion of a "special international regime" instead. The Taba conference, however, failed to curb the second Palestinian intifada, which had erupted a few months before, and a long hiatus in Israeli-Palestinian peace contacts ensued. Now, seven years later, Ramon and Olmert seem to be taking up the Jerusalem negotiations from the point where the Taba negotiators left off. Not all Israeli experts on Jerusalem believe that this is the way to go. Moshe Amirav, a member of Barak's Jerusalem team at Camp David, maintains that shared sovereignty in the Old City and the holy basin makes more sense than Ramon's amorphous "special regime." Amirav, a former Jerusalem city councilor and close friend of Olmert's, recalls that Barak asked him to persuade the then mayor of Jerusalem to come to Camp David. Olmert refused, saying he was ready to hand over the Palestinian neighborhoods, but not to divide the Old City, as he believed Barak intended to do. That, Amirav claims, remains Olmert's position to this day. Amirav, who was expelled from the Likud in the late 1980s for his dovish views, says handing over the Palestinian neighborhoods would simply be correcting "the historic mistake of Ze'evi's map." But as for the Old City, he says he told Clinton at Camp David that, at less than one square kilometer, it is much too small to divide. "I told Clinton that if the Old City were to be divided, it would be impossible to live there. It would become an urban nightmare," he recalls. Instead, Amirav, author of the recently published "The Jerusalem Syndrome," an attempt to explain previous negotiating failures, proposes that Jerusalem remain a single open city, with Israeli sovereignty in the west, Palestinian sovereignty in the east and shared sovereignty in the Old City and holy basin between them. That is a model he believes Olmert would be ready to accept. Amirav says that, in a recent conversation with Olmert, he reminded the prime minister of a secret meeting in Amirav's Jerusalem home 20 years ago with two leading Palestinian figures, the late Faisal Husseini and Seri Nusseibeh. Husseini came up with a proposal for Jerusalem, which, Amirav says, has never been bettered and to which he fully subscribes: "The Old City will be called the 'city of peace,' as it is in the Bible, and placed under joint Israeli-Palestinian sovereignty and the three areas, the 50 sq. km. Palestinian al-Quds, the 70 sq. km. Israeli Jerusalem and the 1 sq. km. Old City, will form a single metropolitan area, with joint infrastructures and joint urban planning, like Greater London," he says. "We sat in my house in Ein Kerem 20 years ago and came up with a simple and fair idea that every Muslim, Jew and Christian can accept." Other experts contend that the open city idea makes sense for the tiny Old City, but not for the rest of the huge, sprawling metropolitan area. Menachem Klein, another member of Barak's Jerusalem brain trust, maintains that just as there will have to be clear political divisions between Israel and Palestine, there will have to be a full-fledged border between Israeli Jerusalem and Palestinian al-Quds. Klein, author of "Jerusalem: The Contested City," sees no problem in division of sovereignty and says the real challenge will lie in maintaining an efficient and user-friendly border regime. "The border controls in and out of the Old City will be at the gates. There will be no barriers inside the Old City, except on holy days like Ramadan or Tisha Be'Av. The holy basin, which includes Mount Zion and the Mount of Olives, is more complicated. There, you would have to do passport/security control in a residential neighborhood, like Silwan. As for the metropolitan areas of Jerusalem and al-Quds, professionals are already thinking about things like where people would cross on foot, where tourist buses would go through and so on," he elaborates. In the Old City, Klein says the division of sovereignty is clear: Palestine would get the Temple Mount and Israel the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall. He rejects Ramon's plan for a special international regime as unnecessarily clouding the highly sensitive sovereignty issue. "I can't understand why Ramon is ready to have, say, a Japanese governor of the Old City, but not a Palestinian governor in their sectors and an Israeli governor on ours. If we are ceding sovereignty anyway, why not to Palestinians?" he asks. In mid-October, as the debate over Jerusalem heated up, lawyer Shmuel Berkovits, a world-renowned authority on the holy places, sent a 10-page memo to Olmert, outlining his plan for the city. Berkovits argues that, for security reasons, Israel should hand over only perimeter Arab neighborhoods, not inner ones bordering on Jewish suburbs; for example, not Beit Safafa, because of its proximity to Gilo and Malha, and not Sheikh Jarah because of its strategic position on a main road joining several Jewish neighborhoods. Berkovits, author of "The Wars over the Holy Places" and "How Awesome is this Place," argues that proposals for the Old City and the holy basin that entail shared sovereignty, divided sovereignty or a waiving of sovereignty - by giving it to God or creating a loosely defined "special regime" - will not work for the simple reason that there needs to be a clearly defined, single sovereign power to maintain law and order. Berkovits, therefore, proposes an international force with the authority, legal trappings and troops to supervise, protect and guarantee access to the holy places. This, he writes, would give both sides a respectable way to climb down from their positions. It would guarantee Jews freedom of access to their holy places, while freeing Israel of responsibility for Christian or Muslim quarrels. Israel and Palestine would both have authority over their own holy sites, subject to the international authority. And there would be no archaeological excavation in the vicinity unless mutually agreed upon or approved in arbitration by the international force. The highly detailed debate over Jerusalem has set off alarm bells on the Israeli right, where any thought of dividing the capital city is anathema. Most right-wingers oppose concessions in Jerusalem for religious and national reasons. Jerusalem city councilor Nir Barkat, one of the more outspoken leaders of the right-wing battle, argues against the division of the city for urban and economic reasons as well. "I have developed a new vision for the city of Jerusalem based on economic development designed to maintain a Jewish majority in the city. For example, I want to bring 10 million tourists a year to the holy basin within a decade. This is not a mission impossible - cities like London, Paris and New York attract 30-40 million tourists a year. In Jerusalem, with all our cultural assets, we get about 1.5 million. Dividing Jerusalem won't allow this to happen. Indeed, just talking about dividing the city sends the wrong message," he declares. The right-wingers are taking steps to block any moves to use concessions over Jerusalem to push the peace process forward. Lieberman, despite his conditional support in the cabinet for handing back peripheral Arab neighborhoods, has warned that Yisrael Beitenu and Shas will leave the government if core issues are discussed at Annapolis. And, in the Knesset, the Likud's Yisrael Katz has succeeded in persuading a majority of 61 legislators, including some from Olmert's own Kadima party, to sign a commitment to vote against any concessions on Jerusalem. Making things even more difficult for the Prime Minister, a majority of the Israeli public is also against a deal on Jerusalem. An early October poll in the mass circulation Yediot Aharonot daily showed a whopping 68 percent of Israelis opposed to any transfer of Arab neighborhoods to Palestinian sovereignty. The right-wing opposition and the public mood could prove to be insurmountable obstacles for Olmert. According to paragraph 6 of the Basic Law: Jerusalem, the capital of Israel (1980), any ceding of territory in Jerusalem requires the approval of the government, the Knesset and a nationwide referendum. So far, the Prime Minister cannot count on a majority in any one of these three forums. Given the alternatives to failure in the new peace process, Olmert may well have reached the conclusion that it is time to turn back the clock on Ze'evi's map. But, despite the outpouring of creative energy and renewed international involvement, without a sea change in Israeli opinion, the Prime Minister will find it very difficult to sketch a new one.