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May 1, 2000
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Jerome M. Segal

At one and the same time, Joseph Alpher is too pessimistic about the possibility of resolving the Jerusalem question and too optimistic about halfway measures.

The core of the Jerusalem issue is the question of sovereignty over East Jerusalem’s three regions: the historic walled city; the downtown areas surrounding the Old City that constitute the remainder of what had been East Jerusalem when the city was under Jordanian control, 1948 1967; and the vast, heterogeneous area of the West Bank that Israel added to East Jerusalem after unifying the pre-existing city during the 1967 war. This last area, “the eastern enlargement,” is roughly nine times the size of pre-1967 East Jerusalem. It includes Jewish neighborhoods constructed since 1967, Mount Scopus, the Mount of Olives, Palestinian villages and quasi-urban areas, a Palestinian refugee camp, an airport, an industrial zone, agricultural land, and substantial other undeveloped land. It should not be imagined as a continuous urban environment.

Fortunately, Israelis and Palestinians do not, in general, view the same parts of the city as most important. A substantial number of Israeli Jews are prepared to give Palestinians sovereignty over the more remote areas of East Jerusalem and also to affirm the idea of a smaller Yerushalayim as long as it includes West Jerusalem, Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, the Old City, the Mount of Olives, and Mount Scopus. Palestinians have a different but analogous prioritization, emphasizing Arab rather than Jewish neighborhoods. Only 1 percent to 2 percent of the entire city is passionately valued by majorities in both communities: the Old City and the Mount of Olives.

These differential attachments form the underlying basis for the two-cities approach: Yerushalayim and Al Quds. The additions of areas outside Jerusalem (of Abu Dis to Al Quds, and of Maale Adumim to Yerushalayim) are fine points. There can be two cities, but they must overlap in the Old City, the heart of both Yerushalayim and Al Quds. Palestinians will not accept as Al Quds a region that excludes the Old City. For Palestinians (who constitute 90% of its residents) the Old City is Al Quds. This cannot be changed by redefinition.

Just because the Old City is a distinct entity, already surrounded by substantial walls, with only a few gates that allow entry and exit, it can feasibly be part of both cities and both states. The key is symmetry with respect to formal sovereignty and actual governance. Three possi-bilities emerge:

  1. Both sides claim sovereignty; neither exer-cises it. Rather, there is joint administration, with sep-arate functional respon-sibilities. They agree to disagree on abstract sovereignty.
  2. The two states collectively exercise joint sovereignty, a rare but not unknown international concept. This resolves the formal question of sovereignty. Again they agree on actual administration.
  3. Both sides follow King Hussein’s suggestion that “God has ultimate sovereignty” over the Old City, and agree on actual administration.

Palestinians will accept any of these approaches. Today, most Israelis will not. The real issue is how to change Israeli public opinion. Three factors are important.

On the moral level, Palestinians have an equal right to the city. And yet even on the Left, this is rarely stated. In this much over-talked conflict, serious moral discourse hardly exists. Yet this is the key to true resolution.

Israeli willingness to compromise, even on the Old City, is significantly affected by pragmatic considerations. Ben-Gurion agreed to internationalize Jerusalem. While Jerusalem is the key to a comprehensive peace agreement, most Israelis, quite reasonably, have strong doubts that a peace treaty will yield real peace. Palestinians (and Israelis) need to take steps that will give their next generation a more nuanced historical narrative, one that provides at least comprehension of how the other side came to its view of the conflict. Here the United States can play an important role, funding a “Next Generation Initiative” directed at all Israeli and Palestinian youth.

The larger Islamic world needs to support a true compromise on Jerusalem and change how Jewish national rights to Jerusalem are understood within Islam.

The American Jewish community can play a role in bringing this about. In particular we should undertake an historic Jewish-Islamic dialogue, including local dialogue and study groups as well as international meetings. When Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury him. Drawing on this common lineage and heritage is our hope for the future.

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Jerome M. Segal is the director of the Jerusalem Project at the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs and president of The Jewish Peace Lobby. He is co-author of Negotiating Jerusalem (SUNY Press).

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