Above the Fray: J'lem must exemplify coexistence

All parties must realize that the city can never be physically divided. Rather, what we should be talking about is shared sovereignty.

Traditional Arab 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Traditional Arab 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The religious, demographic, physical, psychological and political realities facing Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem today require that it be an undivided – yet shared – city serving as a microcosm exemplifying coexistence. 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 leaders on both sides must counter the rejectionists at every level to create a solid foundation in Jerusalem for a lasting two-state solution.
The demographic reality in east and west Jerusalem makes division of the city impossible. While Palestinian residents are largely concentrated in east Jerusalem, and Jewish residents in west Jerusalem, they are interspersed throughout the city. More than 40 percent of east Jerusalem residents are Jews, and nearly 40% of the city’s Israelis live east of the “seam line” that divided it prior to the 1967 Six Day War.
In addition to establishing this demographic mix, Israel has deliberately developed the city in a manner that has united the eastern and western neighborhoods.
Various municipal services, such as gas lines and electricity, are shared across the city. Israel has understood that such structural ties make a future division of the city impossible.
Indeed, Palestinian leaders do not call for a physical division of the city, rather for sovereignty over a Palestinian capital in its eastern portion. As such, any solution to Jerusalem must take into account that it is physically united in every way.
Furthermore, Jerusalem’s religious significance makes it holy to the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. No faith can claim sovereignty over the holy places of another. Just as the guardians of the Dome of the Rock are and must remain Muslims, so should the caretakers of the Western Wall be Jews.
The familiar Jewish call “next year in Jerusalem” has lasted millennia. Islam’s veneration of Jerusalem too spans numerous centuries. Efforts to delegitimize Judaism’s or Islam’s affinity for the city as a holy place deny the unmitigated religious attachment of both peoples to the city.
However, the affinity for Jerusalem on both sides also transcends religion. Secular Israelis and Palestinians value it as more than a place revered by the religious, but as the rightful capital of their respective nations. To further dismiss the conflict as simply one among the religious is to also ignore the reality that both peoples share psychological and emotional ties to the city as the epicenter of their national aspirations.
RECOGNIZING THESE realities, it is a foregone conclusion that Jerusalem cannot and will not be divided. No Israeli politician could survive the political upheaval which would follow an attempt to structurally divide the city. If peace and security are assured, Israelis will support the removal of settlers from communities outside of the major settlement blocs. They will never support the removal of Israelis from the Jerusalem environs.
Adding this political reality, it becomes correctly inconceivable that the city could be divided in any physical way. This consensus view requires one to consider an approach to ending the conflict by sharing the sovereignty of the city to exemplify coexistence and peace.
The solution therefore requires an institutionalization of simple realities: Jewish neighborhoods should be under Jewish sovereignty, Palestinian neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty and the holy shrines should be administered in an independent manner by the appropriate faiths. In this way, rather than creating contiguous land masses divided by a network of walls and tunnels – an impossible proposition – the city would represent the quintessential representation of cooperation and coexistence.
In a recent interview with Haaretz, Defense Minister Ehud Barak let it be known that Israel has plans for dividing Jerusalem. “West Jerusalem and 12 neighborhoods [in the east of the city] that are home to 200,000 residents will be ours,” he said. “The Arab neighborhoods in which close to a quarter million Palestinian live will be theirs. There will be a special regime in place along with agreed upon arrangements in the Old City, the Mount of Olives and the City of David.”
Inevitably, however, there will be some Israelis who will continue to live in areas that would fall under Palestinian control and some Palestinians in Israeli-controlled neighborhoods. By their own choice they would become permanent residents in their current places of residence but citizens of their respective countries where they can exercise their political rights to vote and be elected.
Creating such a scenario where the city will be politically – rather than physically – divided demands strong and sound internal security cooperation. As long as both sides agree on security arrangements – for example, what happens if a crime is committed in one sovereign area and the criminal flees to the other? – then other issues can be resolved. Joint efforts to administer necessary municipal services would be simple to arrange.
EVEN SO, the idea of establishing a shared city representing the potential of coexistence is met by fierce rejectionists.
First, there are those who want it all. They deny the legitimate claims of the other side and work to undermine peace efforts at every turn. They will have to be addressed in any arrangement.
Second, there are those – particularly in Israel – who want to maintain the status quo. They do not recognize the reality that it is untenable. Without a reasonable solution, the deep disagreements over the future of the city will continue to serve as a tinderbox of potential violence, as the recent violent clashes in the Silwan neighborhood demonstrate.
Third, there are those who support the concept of physically separating the city similar to its pre-1967 status.
But this is impossible. Finally, there are those who question whether Israelis and Palestinians can genuinely work together to administer municipal services and keep the peace. Under conditions of real peace and amity, anything is possible; under conditions of hostility, little, if anything, is possible. Political will and courageous leadership can generate vast public support and meaningful coexistence – but it must first be tried.
Rather than serve as a core issue of division, Jerusalem can serve as a symbol of coexistence and peace. To achieve this, leaders on both sides must get serious about recognizing the realities on the ground and addressing the rejectionists. If they do, the city aptly called “Ir Shalom” or “City of Peace” can deservedly live up to its name.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern Studies.