Conflicting paradigms for Jerusalem

While Israel has always respected the sanctity of religious sites, it is not going to politically divide the corpus of Jerusalem – nor should it.

Old City of Jerusalem as seen from the air (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Old City of Jerusalem as seen from the air
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Amid the recent political clamor over Jerusalem, two paradigms are now in open conflict. An older conception of dividing the city between Israelis and Palestinians – euphemistically called “shared sovereignty” – is set against a newer view of Jerusalem as Israel’s inalienable capital, called here “sovereign rights.” The contrasts between these two models are bound to ignite tempers for years to come.
Palestinians ratchet up efforts to sabotage the “sovereign right” of Israel over Jerusalem, while Israel rejects the idea of “sharing” the city. Palestinians now threaten to suspend recognition of Israel, refuse to cooperate on internal security and have launched a nasty media assault. Israel and the United States have responded by either turning a blind eye or curtailing financial aid.
While we can expect the pressures and counter-pressures to continue, we can also see this as a transformative period, where one or another paradigm rises or falls. Paradigms survive not by presenting absolute solutions, but by offering the best possible alternatives to irreconcilable problems. “Shared sovereignty” has dominated the scene for nearly a half century, so we begin with this widely held orthodoxy.
If “shared sovereignty” is not dismissible as an oxymoron, it has a poor record of success. Jerusalem exemplifies how far this fanciful notion can be promoted without many of us noticing its vapidity.
Try walking along the pre-1967 boundary or “green line” that once divided east from west Jerusalem and imagine imposing it in the city’s basin. You will find yourself not only separating one side of the street from another, but dividing property lines, sewer pipes and electrical utilities.
Under the best of conditions, two sovereign states would have to agree on common laws, identical traffic regulations, shared maintenance and acceptable practices for apprehending criminals.
Consider also issuing speaking permits, policing street marches and arranging holiday celebrations. By any standard this is a risky experiment that magnifies the prospect for outright conflict.
Nevertheless, world leaders cling to this contrivance, and are still determined to try it out on Jews and Arabs living in one of the tightest spaces in the world.
We should consult the experience of other cities that were once divided or contested. East and West Berlin are the best-known examples of a divided city that could not endure. Gdansk, or what was once Danzig, was contested by Poland and Germany, until it was ceded to Poland. Trieste was once contested by the former Yugoslavia and Italy, until it became part of Italy. For all the tumult and bloodshed that plagued Northern Ireland, Belfast remains within Great Britain. The Byzantine and Ottoman empires fought over the possession of Constantinople, until that city fell under Turkey’s sovereignty and was renamed Istanbul (to the consternation of modern Greece). History teaches us that divided or contested cities have been settled on behalf of one side or another. Refusing to accept this as a normal outcome of a power dynamic is tantamount to jumping from a skyscraper and hoping that gravity will not take hold.
It is time for the rest of the world to face realities. There is a difference between political sovereignty over a territory and religious rights within a territory. While Israel has always respected the sanctity of religious sites, it is not going to politically divide the corpus of Jerusalem – nor should it.
Even the polls tell us that three-quarters of Israelis would not divide the heart of Jerusalem for a “two state solution.”
Most Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites grew up under a unified city.
The city is as “open” as any in the West and boasts flourishing neighborhoods, connected by a brand-new light rail system. Granted, some communities are socially polarized, under-served and unequal, but so too are neighborhoods in New York and Paris. Blemished as it may be, the present situation is still more palatable than the grossly unrealistic alternative posed by the EU or past American administrations.
THE NEWER paradigm of “sovereign rights” is flexible and allows for multiple possibilities. Fundamentally, it recognizes that, like any nation state, Jerusalem should be governed by the nation in which it lies. Also deserving attention is that rather than tearing down the status quo, it is better to build upon it.
Not so clear is how we fill in the details.
A number of alternatives fit the new paradigm. Thus, while the basin of Jerusalem is not divisible, outer Palestinians villages might serve to redefine the contours of a new east Jerusalem. Palestinians would have to get used to the idea of a differently situated east Jerusalem, in villages along the city’s eastern border or outside of it. The nearby suburb of Abu Dis was offered to the Palestinians during the heady days of Camp David and has now been re-offered as an alternative “east Jerusalem,” but angrily turned down. So be it for the time being.
A seldom discussed alternative envisions a decentralized Jerusalem, not unlike London’s borough governance, New York’s community boards or Paris’s neighborhoods districts. Jerusalem’s geography of hills and valleys makes it ideal for distinct neighborhoods to exercise limited autonomy within a larger municipality. Under this scheme each neighborhood elects its own council, headed by a local leader or “mayor.” Neighborhood councils would be charged with the daily administration of sanitation, parking and land use. At the same time, neighborhood councils would be joined to a larger Jerusalem, by selecting members to serve on a combined municipal council and electing an all-city mayor.
Neighborhood government offers the advantage of giving expression to social and political diversity. Yet it also retains the indivisibility of Israeli national sovereignty.
Our third paradigmatic option combines the recognition of sovereignty with strict and maximally distant geographic boundaries. Like the experience of Berlin, Gdansk, Trieste, Belfast and Istanbul it assigns finality to who owns a city. Historically, and for good reason, it is the most widely used instrument for settling disputes over cities. In this case Ramallah and Jerusalem would serve respectively as distinct cities for Palestinians and Israelis.
Any one of these possibilities could resolve Jerusalem’s status, but only if the West is steadfastly united behind it and foreign ministers stop declaring realities to be “null” and “void.” To do otherwise only hardens the paradigmatic stalemate.
Better to understand that some matters must turn on the weight of fact and possession. To borrow from the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott, “to try to do something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting activity.”
The West would do well to follow that advice by resisting meaningless resolutions, rejecting intimidation and recognizing a new paradigm for Jerusalem.
The author is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, and Brown and Williamson Emeritus Professor at the University of Louisville.