Monday, January 31, 2011

Education About Jerusalem Can Help Resolve Its Divisions

By Daniel Seidemann
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 31/01/2011

The Arab Peace Initiative makes cursory reference to Jerusalem, stating only that East Jerusalem should become the capital of the Palestinian state. Yet the underlying architectural principles of the Arab Peace Initiative (API) can be identified, articulated and extrapolated to Jerusalem. In sum, the API re-frames “land for peace” into “end of occupation in exchange for legitimacy.” It includes closure of the “1948 file”– end of claims – in exchange for acceptance of the 1967 border.

How will these principles interact with the ebb and flow of Israeli fears and hopes regarding the future of Jerusalem?

The API points toward a politically divided Jerusalem, based on the principles of territorial sovereignty defined by the green line. This approach dovetails with the growing awareness in Israel that a unified, bi-national Jerusalem is not in Israel’s national interest, and that over time, Israeli rule over close to 300,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem is not sustainable. The Israeli attitude toward occupation is increasingly reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson’s quip that slavery is like holding a wolf by the ears: you don’t dare hold on, and you are scared to let go. The API has the potential to provide a framework for Israel to “let go” of occupation in East Jerusalem, not as a retreat, but as a bold move made in the service of the two-state solution, and justifying a division of the city.

On the other hand, if the API sanctifies the green line, thereby mandating a dismantling of all Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, it is not likely to gain much traction in Israel. There are 195,000 Israelis living in these settlements, and a proposed agreement that requires them to be uprooted will not likely go far. It is noteworthy that the Palestinians have acknowledged publicly that the API does allow for mutually agreed territorial adjustments that deviate from the green line. If this is indeed the case, the API principles offer Israelis the incentive of transforming the bulk of their settlements in East Jerusalem into universally recognized parts of sovereign Israel.

The API is rooted in the language of legitimacy. In this context its potential impact on Israeli public opinion is greatest. No state recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Ironically, it is only the Palestinians, in the framework of the API, who can deliver to Israel what it craves most in Jerusalem: legitimacy. A division of Jerusalem will encounter fierce domestic Israeli opposition; but a division of Jerusalem that brings recognition of Jewish Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, alongside the Palestinian capital of Al-Quds, with Arab embassies in both, will increase support for an agreement in Israel.

If it is possible to envisage an agreed border in Jerusalem under API principles that deviates from the green line, it is highly unlikely that such accommodations will apply to the Haram al-Sharif-Temple Mount and its environs. The API is less prone to ideas like a special regime in the Old City (ostensibly offered by Ehud Olmert to Mahmoud Abbas) or inventive ideas like “divine sovereignty” on the Haram-Mount (as articulated by the late King Hussein). Any attempt to construe the API short of “full-stop” Palestinian or Arab sovereignty on the Haram-Mount would be self-delusion. 

Achieving an Israeli waiver of sovereign claims to the Haram-Mount and the surrounding areas will be one of the most daunting challenges of any permanent-status agreement.

The potential to secure an Israeli waiver of sovereign claims, to the extent such potential exists, is embedded in the logic of the API. Israelis correctly perceive Palestinian and Arab denials of historic Jewish connections to Jerusalem as a litmus test, disclosing the acceptance or rejection of authentic Jewish connections to Israel-Palestine. Absent an affirmative acceptance of these connections, demands to cede Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount would almost certainly be rejected out of hand, as such an action would for Israelis be accompanied by a sense of violation and feared loss of legitimacy of the entire enterprise that is modern Israel.

On the other hand were the permanent-status agreement, loyal to the inner logic of the API, to include declarations recognizing the legitimacy of Jewish attachments and provisions guaranteeing the inviolability of Jewish equities under Palestinian-Arab sovereignty, the calculus could change significantly. In effect, the Palestinian-Arab sovereign would declare itself the custodian of Jewish memories and their physical embodiments. The act of assuring protection of archeological artifacts and guaranteeing access for non-Muslims to the Haram-Mount, would significantly increase the willingness of Israelis to entertain the possibility of such sovereignty. 

Indeed, such a development is not implausible: today, from Rabat to Beirut, Cairo to Damascus, Arab governments are restoring Jewish synagogues because the historic, legitimate Jewish presence in their countries is part of their interpretation of Arab civilization – an interpretation shared by the API. 

The API has the potential to “speak the language” of Jerusalem well. Its focus on the green line, with agreed modifications, is consistent with the growing consensus in Israel that Israeli rule over East Jerusalem is untenable in the long run. And indeed, based on the API’s principles, validating Jewish attachments to areas that fall under Palestinian-Arab sovereignty – an act that would, in parallel, demand validation of Muslim attachments to sites within Israel, like the Mamilla cemetery – would likely be far less difficult than resolving what for Palestinians and the Arab world is the highly problematic Israeli demand for recognition of “the Jewish character” of Israel. 

The concern, even passion, in the Arab world regarding Jerusalem is undoubtedly genuine – but not always accompanied by a familiarity with the rival equities in the city, an appreciation of the city’s real-time complexities, or a respect for the genuine concerns of Israelis and Jews. For these reasons, stakeholders in the API need to begin to educate themselves and their populations about Jerusalem. 

In doing so, they can begin leveraging the API to make real progress on Jerusalem. They can use it to generate potential permanent-status positions compatible with the complexities of the city and the sensitivities in the Jewish, Muslim and Christian worlds, and that contribute to building confidence in the API as a tool to energize Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and, ultimately, achieve peace. 

Daniel Seidemann is an attorney specializing in Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter.

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