by Gershon Baskin
The status of Jerusalem is the biggest challenge in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is in Jerusalem where we will determine whether peace can be a reality.
My understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that we Jews and we Palestinians are both fighting for a territorial expression of our identity. We both demand recognition of our rights as a people for self-determination in a nation-state that expresses who we are and defends us against those who seek to harm. We, Jews and Palestinians, have proven our willingness to fight, kill and die for that piece of land we can call our own. For this reason, the only solution that would put an end to the conflict, because it addresses what we are fighting over, is two states for two peoples. Both the failures of past peace processes and common sense tell us that peace between peoples is not built through the erection of walls, fences and barriers that prevent interaction and contact between people. It is precisely the opposite — contact and cooperation — on which genuine peace is built. Nowhere is this truer than in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is the microcosm and the epicenter of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Jerusalem is where history, religion, nationalism and their symbols come together engulfed in a history of tragedy and bloodshed. Jerusalem is much more than a piece of real estate, more than just an urban center. Jerusalem is the heart of the conflict, and therefore it will also be the heart of Israeli Palestinian peace.
How to Divide the City without Building Walls
Jerusalem must be the capital of both Israel and Palestine, and sovereignty must be divided in Jerusalem with clear borders for each side. There is no other way of concluding a peace treaty. But Jerusalem cannot be divided physically without killing the city that we both claim to love and cherish. Jerusalem is a living, breathing organism. Its life is expressed in so many ways every day by the people who live here and by those who come to visit, either for religious expression of their faith, for business and work, for entertainment or for tourism. The first observation that any newcomer to Jerusalem makes, if they are in any way politically and socially aware, is that Jerusalem is the most segregated city in the world. There are no common Israeli-Palestinian areas in the city. Jews and Palestinians do not live together. They largely use different roads and different modes of public transportation. They shop in different areas, they celebrate holidays and family occasions in different spaces. When an Israeli from Jerusalem and a Palestinian from Jerusalem describe their city, they describe two very different places. I know that when I invite Palestinians to visit me in my home in Kiryat Hayovel in southwest Jerusalem, most do not know where it is and have never been there. That never happens when I invite an Israeli. Likewise, when Palestinians invite Israelis, even Jewish Jerusalemites, to their home, for the Israelis it is almost as if there were visiting a foreign city. The only places of commonality in Jerusalem are perhaps the hospitals, where our own human frailty ceases to distinguish between our differing identities, where our illnesses are identically human and where, fortunately, much of the medical teams are both Jews and Palestinians.
Everyone knows which parts of Jerusalem are Jewish and which are Palestinian. That is why then-U.S. President Bill Clinton proposed in his parameters for peace in 2000: “What is Jewish to Israel, what is Arab to Palestine.” By looking at demography, the borderlines in the city can easily be defined. While they are not straight lines, the glass walls that today separate Jews and Palestinians, coupled with a very clear geography of fear in Jerusalem, enable the drawing of those borderlines on maps that will designate Israel’s capital Yerushalayim and Palestine’s capital Al-Quds. But those lines, which are political designations of sovereignty, must not become the lines of walls, fences and obstacles separating people and killing the city.
For the Old City — a Number of Possible Solutions
When it comes to the Old City of Jerusalem, less than one square kilometer surrounded by the only walls that we need in this city, there are a number of solutions, and I do not have a preference for any — whatever the parties agree to is alright with me. The Clinton parameters can be adopted for the Old City, meaning that the Jewish Quarter would be part of Israel and the Armenian, Christian and Muslim Quarters would be part of Palestine. One alternative is the model developed by the University of Windsor (Canada) Old City of Jerusalem project. Their basic idea is that the people of the Old City would have an elected representative board but the actual management of the Old City would be turned over to a kind of international professional management company.
The most sensitive issue is, of course, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (Al-Aqsa compound). For Jews it is the holiest of places on the planet; for Muslims the third holiest place and the most central element of Palestinian identity. Palestinians no longer seem to accept Jewish belief (and what I believe to be historical fact) that the Al-Aqsa compound, specifically under the Dome of the Rock, is the place where the First and Second Temples were located. It is the place where Abraham brought his son Isaac for sacrifice at God’s orders and where Abraham demonstrated his faith. (Muslims, of course, talk about Ibrahim’s sacrifice of his eldest son Ismail). Jews get extremely offended and even outraged when there is denial of Jewish connection to the Temple Mount by the Palestinians and by Muslims, as we have seen recently with the votes in UNESCO. Palestinians and Muslims should accept this fact, as they did in the past, but if they cannot, they should respect the holiness of the site for Jews, which is felt by Jews all over the world. And if the Muslims do not want to accept Jewish religious and historical evidence, then they should accept the Christian evidence. In the New Testament (Matthew 21: 12) is the story of Jesus’ visit to the Temple in Jerusalem, and Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet.
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.
There is no prohibition in Islam for a non-Muslim who is a believer in one god to enter a mosque and even pray there (except in Mecca itself). According to Sharia, there should be no problem for Jews to pray on the Temple Mount, anywhere on the Haram al-Sharif. The problem, therefore, is not religious but much more political in nature, and one of control of this holy space.
Muslims feel that their holy space is threatened and that Israel has concrete plans to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and to build a temple there. I do not believe that any government of Israel would ever present such a plan, and the perception of a threat against Al-Aqsa is part of a widespread conspiracy theory which breeds religious passions of fear, hatred and violence. It is clear that Muslim control over the Haram al-Sharif will continue until such a time that God changes the reality on the ground. Until then, Jews will continue to pray at the Western Wall (which is also holy for Muslims), Muslims will continue to control the Haram al-Sharif, and the Jews and the Muslims will have to agree that there are limitations to defined physical spaces for prayer.
When there is true peace between Israel and Palestine, in principle there should be no opposition for anyone to pray to the same God in any language and in any space. But until then, Israel and Palestine will have to agree that neither side will take any unilateral action to dig, tunnel, construct or physically change any part of the holy compound. Such actions can only be taken with mutual agreement. In the end, when there is a peace agreement, it would be best if both sides relinquished claims of state sovereignty over holy spaces and allowed the concept of “divine sovereignty” to de-politicize the holy sites.
We Cannot Sub-contract Our Security Responsibilities to Others
Beyond the religious and symbolic challenges we face in Jerusalem, creating a reality of peace in the city will require devising a means to provide for security for all in Jerusalem — Israelis and Palestinians alike. With open borders in the city — essentially no physical borders separating Israelis and Palestinians — it will be essential not only for each side to take control of, and responsibility for, providing security for their own people, but also for there to be a robust joint Israeli-Palestinian security mechanism. In Jerusalem, Israeli and Palestinian security officials will have to work together — in the same office, with joint command and control, using shared intelligence, taking responsibility together for ensuring that peace is defended against those willing to use violence to destroy it.
This will be a complex structure, and there will be a need for thirdparty expertise to assist in building the mechanism, ensuring coordination and cooperation, resolving disputes and misunderstandings. But the solution is not a third-party force. If Israelis and Palestinians together do not take direct responsibility for security, there will be no security and there will be no peace. We cannot sub-contract our security responsibilities to others. Jerusalem is the place where the security cooperation will be more robust and will be tested every single day. There probably will be a need to define a security perimeter for the external borders of Jerusalem, but that falls beyond the scope of this short paper.
In order to make security more sustainable, the economic life of the city must also receive significant enhancements. First, infrastructure in the Palestinian parts of the city must be immediately improved and brought to 21st-century standards. This will require huge investments and capital and, in a time of peace, far more resources will be available than are now. I believe that Palestine will have to create a municipal government for their capital city, and it will be preferable for them to do so rather than contemplate a joint municipality. There will be a need for substantial cooperation between the two municipalities and the acceptance of a lot of joint standards and laws to enable positive planning, building, commerce and law enforcement. This is largely a technical question, and experts on both sides, assisted by the international community, will be able to undertake these challenges.
When Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and Palestine, more than 100 countries will move their embassies and diplomatic personnel to the city. It is possible to imagine that the area known as E1, between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim could become the international diplomatic district. Thousands of people will have to move to the city; new embassies and homes for diplomats will have to be built. It is possible to imagine that international organizations currently located in places like Geneva could decide to move their headquarters to the international city of peace — Jerusalem. This would be an economic boon for Jerusalem and for Israel and Palestine. It would also enhance security for both sides, as embassies and diplomats will be accompanied by international security arrangements. Many countries could also choose to have one embassy serving both countries.
A New Jerusalem Could Be an Example for the Rest of the World
The challenge facing us Israelis and Palestinians, and perhaps all of humanity, is that Jerusalem has the potential to demonstrate our ability to create a space where we celebrate diversity rather than fearing and hating it. The multicultural, multilingual, multi-faith, mosaic-like reality of what is Jerusalem is precisely why I love Jerusalem so much. For too long, we have failed to understand the blessing that is embodied in Jerusalem. I remember from my youth how my aimless wanderings around this city going from neighborhood to neighborhood, smelling the scents of food cooking in the air, the sounds of music of so many tones and colors merging into a intoxicatingly wonderful glory of multiple expressions of humanity. I recall being in the Old City in a year when Pesach, Easter and Eid al- Adha converged at the same time. The narrow streets of the Old City were overwhelmed with thousands of people from three great civilizations, each parading off in their own direction and in their own space with glass walls separating them as they went on their way. I stood at the entrance of a small shop to watch this glory and thought how wonderful it would be if these people, if we, were all taking part in one another’s celebrations, rather than imagining a reality where only we occupied that space.
Jerusalem is blessed by belonging to us all, and when we make peace, we will be blessed by the peace of Jerusalem.