Sense, sensibility and sovereignty

"Our daily lives matter in this city.... We don't live only on symbols and sanctity."

ruth lapidoth 88 (photo credit: )
ruth lapidoth 88
(photo credit: )
You have to walk up three and a half flours, exactly 46 steps," Professor Ruth Lapidoth gives instructions to her home with her characteristic blend of precise thinking, humor and generosity. And there are, of course, precisely 46 steps.
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In May, Lapidoth, 75, was awarded the Israel Prize for Law, the most recent prize in the long list of honors and credits that have marked her remarkable career as an internationally regarded expert in international law. She is interviewed in her apartment in the Talbiyeh section of Jerusalem. It's a wonderful, old-time Jerusalem apartment, filled with shelves over-stuffed with books, papers, citations and pictures of grandchildren and furnished with Scandinavian-style furniture. A grand piano, with several vases and a fruit bowl on the top, dominates a section of the living room, its wing folded and the keys covered. Lapidoth has represented Israel at some of its most critical international moments. She was a member of Israel's delegation to the United Nations in 1976, just one year after the infamous resolution that equated Zionism with racism. She represented Israel at the Red Cross Committee and the negotiations that led to the peace agreement with Egypt, including the arbitration over Taba. She has taught at prestigious universities all over the world, has authored nine books, edited numerous others, and published more than 90 academic and scholarly articles. For over a decade, Lapidoth has focused on legal solutions to the conflict in Jerusalem and her publications have helped ministries and prime ministers form their opinions and policies regarding the city. Her work on Jerusalem is distinguished by its simultaneous comprehensive, broad scope and attention to detail, as well as by her frank discussion of international intervention in the city and her rejection of the concept of sovereignty. And yet, despite these achievements, Lapidoth, a tall, broad-framed woman with a wide smile that fills her entire face, wearing mismatched, no style clothes, her hair cropped short, is unassuming and welcoming. She genuinely listens, often prefacing her answer with, "I never thought of it that way," or, "That's an interesting way to view this." Ruth Lapidoth was born in Germany and came to Israel in 1938. She grew up in Ramat Gan and had wanted to study music. So when she completed high school in 1947, her parents encouraged her to travel to Paris for a year - "So that when I came back, I would be ready to study something useful." But she came back before the year was up because the State of Israel had been established and Lapidoth enlisted in the newly created Israel Defense Forces. "One day, when I was pitching my tent," she says ruefully, "I pounded the stake into my hand instead of into the ground. And that was certainly the end of a career in music." After her discharge from the IDF, she registered at the Hebrew University to study mathematics and physics. Her mother told her to send a telegram to change her registration. "She said that all I could do with that degree was to be a teacher. And I was certainly not suited to be a teacher." Yet today she is a renowned teacher, revered by her students. At an evening at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS) held in her honor, Prof. Moshe Hirsch described at length how demanding, devoted and truly mentoring she had been throughout his career. "Ah, but students are not children," she responds now. "In those days, when there was flooding in Tel Aviv, the teachers couldn't make it into Ramat Gan, so they would take high school students as substitutes. When I went into a classroom, those little children made me into a pita with felafel! Mincemeat! I couldn't control them." In addition to music, mathematics and physics, she had also been interested in history, so her mother encouraged her to study law, which, is after all, her mother said, "sort-of related." "She told me that I wouldn't have to be a lawyer. I could always be a civil servant. And that would suit me." Did she always do what her mother told her to do? "Usually, and I'm not sorry. I have had a good life in law." Her decision to concentrate on international law, she reveals, was a "chance decision," because one of her professors had asked her to be a research assistant. "So much of life is pure chance," she says, somewhat surprisingly. She is most proud of her work on the Taba agreement with Egypt in the 1980s. "It was a difficult and complicated issue, and I had to take care to protect Israel's interests as best I could. I saved Israel 250 meters, and I am very proud of that. That elegant hotel on the beach - my students told me that I should be offered a suite there," she says, laughing. Her greatest failure? She answers without hesitation. In 1984, she was asked to head the nascent National Council for the Advancement of the Status of Women. "They wanted someone who wasn't a member of any party and wasn't identified with any political position," she recalls. "I saw that it wouldn't work. Some of the women - how should I put this - weren't so pleased that I was in charge. And I remember that I wanted to serve sandwiches but I didn't have a budget for sandwiches. To get a budget for sandwiches, I had to approach the director-general. He referred me to someone else. So I said, ladies and gentlemen, this isn't for me, and I looked for an excuse to get out." The excuse came quickly, when the Foreign Ministry asked her to be part of the Taba delegation. "That was a pretty good excuse, wasn't it?" she laughs. Over the past decade, much of Lapidoth's work has focused on the concepts of sovereignty and autonomy, which she has applied to the legal status of Jerusalem. At the Herzliya Conference last January, Lapidoth presented the first results of the work that she and a team of researchers have been preparing under the auspices of the JIIS, where she is a senior researcher. Soon to be published by the JIIS as a full volume, entitled, The Historical Basin of Jerusalem: The Status Quo and Alternatives for Agreement, the thought-provoking work has already attracted significant political and academic attention. The core of the work focuses on five alternatives for the future management of the historical basin in the context of a permanent settlement. Lapidoth notes that the team prefers the term "historical basin" to the more common term "holy basin." "Not everything is holy," she says clearly. "The houses aren't holy. This idea that all of Jerusalem is holy is silly - there is a difference between the feelings towards Gilo, for example, and the feelings towards the Old City. "Of course we all care about all of Jerusalem, but the Old City is the most complicated and the most emotional part, and that is the part that will be the most difficult to give up or reach a compromise on. So we had better deal with it now." Yet the term "basin" refers to more than the Old City and includes many of the sites surrounding the Old City, such as the Mount of Olives or Mount Zion. "Yes, these are problematic areas, too, in terms of their meaning and symbolism for Jews, Arabs and Christians. It makes things more difficult, but we can't run away from things that are difficult." Lapidoth's five proposed principle alternatives for solutions to the historical basin include: 1. Full sovereignty and control of the State of Israel throughout the historical basin; 2. Full Palestinian sovereignty and control throughout the historical basin; 3. The territorial division of the basin between the sides, with international supervision; 4. Joint management, the division of authorities between the sides and international backing; 5. Management of the historical basin by the international body, which will delegate powers to both sides. "What makes our work unique and different from other plans, such as the Clinton Plan, the Geneva Plan and the Ayalon-Nusseibeh Plan," Lapidoth explains, "is that we deal with the issues from very wide perspectives - legal, economic, demographic, conservation and development, and education. And while we are stating principles, we are also trying to be very practical and get into the details." Moreover, she contends, "we are not offering one idea, but rather five possible ideas and we point to their advantages and disadvantages. In negotiations, anyone can choose any part of the alternatives that they prefer." Yet a review of the criteria that the group used to develop these alternatives shows that the members of the team have actually rejected the first two, mutually exclusive, options. She acknowledges. "We only put those first two in because we didn't want to be accused of promoting a single political position. But the entire team understood that these are not reasonable alternatives - no one will agree to them." Which alternatives does she prefer? "It depends on the situation and the relationship between the sides. If the relationship is positive - then certainly, I am in favor of cooperation. But if the relationship is not good, then we will have to settle for the third option [international supervision over the territorial division]." Her phone rings and she answers it in another room. After a few moments, she returns and says that the caller was someone who wanted to tell her about an experimental use of a new drug that might help her eyes. She states, without pathos, almost matter-of-factly, that she is suffering from age-related macular degeneration, which results in the gradual distortion and sometimes complete loss of central vision. "I read now with the help of a computer that magnifies the pages. But it's difficult," she says. And she can no longer play the piano, because she can neither read the music nor see the keys. Will she lose her sight? "Yes, and apparently very quickly," she responds, then adds, "I have a motto: The happy person is he who is able to forget that which he cannot change." She continues the interview. Lapidoth was a member of Israel's delegation to the United Nations and has been known to be an outspoken critic of the UN. So why does she call for varying levels of international intervention in Jerusalem? "International intervention - yes. But the United Nations - never," she explains. "The Security Council has been very biased against Israel and my experiences at the United Nations were very negative. The atmosphere was terrible. "I always remind my students that the UN does have an influence, and that in the hallways, it is possible to meet people who we would otherwise never meet. And the UN did save us, at least once, during the cease-fire in June 1948. But still, I would never recommend UN Forces. The UN has never proven itself - not here, not in Srebnicia - not anywhere. "I am referring to a peace-keeping force, and that is something else. Like the MFO [Multinational Force and Observers] which was established for Israel and Egypt by the US. It's efficient and doesn't make a lot of noise. That could work, and help the Israelis and the Palestinians to find a modus-vivendi." Much of her academic work has dealt with sovereignty, yet she says that "sovereignty is a terrible word." "I certainly can't agree to religious sovereignty in the historical basin," she says. "Sovereignty can belong to God, the whole world belongs to God, so no one has a problem with that. But we have to take religion and sovereignty out of the negotiations. We have to negotiate over responsibility, authority, rights and such. I prefer not to discuss sovereignty at all." She cites the current situation in the Falklands and the arrangements between the Germans and the Dutch over the port of the Eems river as examples. Referring to the situation between Germany and Holland, she continues, "People say it's easy to agree to disagree over fish. But there are ports and national parks and national interests there, and these two countries have managed to find a way to work together. "We could agree not to agree. Period. And then discuss how we're going to get along, how to resolve disagreements, and so on." Sovereignty, she continues, is a strange topic, used in all sorts of ways, some of them absurd. "People say we must have sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. What does that mean? There are parts of Jerusalem that Jews never go to. There are parts that Palestinians never go to. And the neglect of the Old City and east Jerusalem by all of the governments is a hint that they never really intended for the eastern part of the city to be part of the state. "In all discussions about sovereignty, it is clear that sovereignty entails not only rights, but also responsibilities and duties. The governments of Israel have never taken on full responsibility for the entire city - so that says something - you can't just pick and choose what's convenient for you. Sovereignty doesn't work that way. So let's not talk about sovereignty, let's talk about living." She is often given credit for coining the term, "functional sovereignty." "Actually, I borrowed the term from marine law, according to which a state has certain authority at a distance of some 200 miles from the shore for the purposes of research and economic research, but not for the purposes of shipping or policing. So we could agree that some functions would be under the authority of one country, and other functions under the authority of the other party. For example, security and foreign policy could be Israel's authority, while issues of public order could be the responsibility of the Palestinians." For many years, there has been a taboo on discussing any kind of a division of or compromise in Jerusalem. Lapidoth hasn't hesitated to break it. "Yes, that's true, and throughout my career, I've dealt with the things that no one else wanted to deal with - issues such as sovereignty, conflict resolution in Jerusalem, citizenship and residency. "But today, there are many Israelis willing to compromise, and especially with regard to the Arab villages that were annexed to Jerusalem - if those Israelis even know where those villages are, that is." Yet even the Oslo Accords left Jerusalem "for last," in the hope that the sides would develop trust and mutual confidence. "Without a solution to the problem of Jerusalem," she answers levelly, "there won't be a solution to the conflict. We have to present the public, the politicians and the diplomats with our ideas, and they will choose what they want or what seems right to them. If we observe the taboo, we will never be ready." But is now a realistic time to try to come to a resolution of the conflict in Jerusalem? "No, right now, there is nothing to say, no one to talk to. Certain not Hamas. Not a chance. What the Arabs are saying about Jewish claims to the Western Wall and Jerusalem - it's appalling. It will only make it more difficult for them afterwards to come and reach a compromise. The bluffs and lies - it's terrible, terrible! "But if we are not optimistic, then we might as well go out and hang ourselves on a tree 50 cubits high. So now is definitely the time to work on solutions. Not only to keep our optimism alive, but also to be ready. Because when we reach the stage of serious negotiations, it will be too late to start thinking about new ideas. We have to look at those ideas now." In her chapter in the JIIS book, Lapidoth also notes that the construction of the security fence is making things more difficult. "I'm not sure what to call it - it's not a wall. Only a small part is a wall, the rest is a fence. But there is a wall in Jerusalem. I hope that the security situation will soon let us take it down. The security people tell us that we need it. So how do I know if they are right? Yet in Jerusalem, I would prefer that they would use less drastic means. I am not a security person, but in my vision - Jerusalem would not have walls. "My own work deals mostly with the historical basin, and the wall doesn't affect that. In fact, the wall could even help, in economic terms - it might prevent smuggling of weapons and such, and drugs." Many think tanks and political groups have proposed solutions for Jerusalem. Do Jerusalemites, the beneficiaries or victims of all these plans, have any say regarding the future of their city? "That is an important point," she says. "And it's true that many of the people who propose ideas for this city don't live here - although all the members of our team at the JIIS do live in the city. But yes, to a large extent, Jerusalemites have been disenfranchised." She considers for a moment. "Of course, any agreement would have to be brought to a referendum - and that includes Jerusalemites, too. But I think that Jerusalemites should have a more positive influence in educating that people of the State of Israel about what is important to us. That our daily lives matter in this city, that we don't live only on symbols and sanctity." For Lapidoth, the Old City is most quintessentially Jerusalem, and she goes there often, lovingly. And she also loves Mount Scopus - not the Hebrew University campus, she clarifies - "it's too ugly" - but the entire area and its views and light. Readily she adds that it makes her angry that young people are leaving Jerusalem. "That is terrible. I don't know what the solution is, but I want them to stay, even if they are only leaving for Mevasseret or for Modi'in." Her own children, born in Jerusalem, both live in Europe. Her daughter, Tamar, is a pediatrician and her son, Amos, is an electrical engineer. She then says, "I had three children. But now I have two. My oldest son was killed in 1982 in an accident on the Hermon Mountain." Again, she says this factually, quietly. It is clear that she will not have much more to say about her loss, and again, the silence is sad, but resigned. Lapidoth has been accused both of being on the Left and on the Right sides of the political spectrum, and of being both religious and overly secular. She considers herself, she says, a religious woman. "But I don't think that being religious means not being able to make sacrifices. There are many religious leaders, such as Prof. Uriel Simon, who tell us that we can and even must make sacrifices to save human lives." As to her political positions, she is amused that they are difficult to determine. "People think that if your name is Lapidoth, you must be part of the underground fighting family. I do have a brother- and sister-in-law who are devoted right-wingers. But me, I'm not Right or Left, so the Left thinks I'm from the Right and the Right thinks I'm from the Left. I'm not. I've never been in a part or a group or a political organization. I've dealt with international issues, in right-wing and left-wing governments. I'm against war and for peace. And for peace I'm willing to compromise, to make sacrifices. Reasonable compromises and reasonable sacrifices."