In August 1989 I launched the first Israeli-Palestinian working group of experts on the future of Jerusalem.
It was quite evident even then that Jerusalem would be a focal point of any future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Without finding a peaceful solution for Jerusalem which would enable both sides to have their national capital in the city there could be no peace.
That has not changed.
In 1992, after three years of intensive monthly meetings and an additional six long weekends together, we published our plan for sharing Jerusalem.
This was before Oslo, and still remains the most viable solution for the future of Jerusalem. As part of the exploration for a solution, we prepared a map of the city, color-coded by population groups within the city. It was strikingly clear that Jerusalem was a very segregated city; I believe the most segregated city in the world. Israelis and Palestinian live in separate areas. There are no common areas in the city. This observation immediately led to the understanding that sovereignty in Jerusalem could be assigned to different neighborhoods on the basis of demography.
We called this “dispersed sovereignty.” At the end of the year 2000, president Clinton, in his parameters for peace that he presented to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, created the terms of reference: “what is Jewish for Israel, what is Arab for Palestine.”
Another principle that our 1992 plan shared with Clinton’s vision was that Jerusalem must remain one open city without physical boundaries preventing free movement within the city. Jerusalem after all is an urban space where hundreds of thousands of people live, and walls and fences dividing the city into small pieces would kill it and make it an impossible place to live and work in. This obviously presents a lot of challenges because there is no peaceful solution for Jerusalem without dividing the sovereignty of city, but both sides must at the same time guarantee that the city would remain physically united and open.
The separation wall that was built around the city in the south, east and north, was constructed to keep Palestinians out of the city. The law of unintended consequences resulted with an influx of some 60,000 Palestinians into the city. These people over the years from 1967 had moved out of the city, mostly to the north where housing was more available and cheaper.
They moved back into the city out of fear of being cut off and possibly losing their right to live in Jerusalem.
There are some 360,000 Palestinians living in Jerusalem today, the overwhelming majority of whom are not Israeli citizens, but residents of Jerusalem.
According to Israeli law, inherited from the British, as residents they have the right to run in municipal elections and to vote in them. The Palestinians in the city boycott those elections, rejecting Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the whole city. They are nonetheless subject to Israeli policies and laws and also enjoy some of the benefits of being residents of the State of Israel –mainly freedom of movement, National Insurance Institute payments and access to Israel’s health services. Despite the benefits, most Palestinians in Jerusalem demand to be part of the Palestinian state and for Jerusalem to be its capital. This is not only because Palestinians in Jerusalem suffer from significant discrimination; there is not one country in the world that recognized Israel’s sovereignty over all of Jerusalem.
Before the establishment of the Palestinian Authority Jerusalem was the center of Palestinian life – economically, culturally, educationally, religiously and politically.
Today, Jerusalem remains center only in the area of religion. Jerusalem has been cut off from Palestinians and Palestinians have been cut off from Jerusalem. The physical border established by Israel after Oslo cuts Jerusalem off from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel cynically exploited Palestinian agreement to leave Jerusalem as a final status issue to prevent the PA from having any access or input in Jerusalem.
Israel has refused to implement its obligations under the Road Map for Peace of president George W. Bush, which required Israel to reopen Palestinian national institutions in Jerusalem – primarily the Orient House and the East Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce.
Since the death of Faisal Husseini in 2001, Jerusalem has been devoid of local leadership capable of uniting the people, and Israel has strongly enforced a “divide and conquer” mode of operation in the city to prevent the emergence of new leadership. Israel has ignored development in most of the Palestinian areas and even the police only enter those areas when engaged in anti-terrorist activities, leaving a largely lawless zone within Israel’s eternal undivided capital.
The Old City of Jerusalem is certainly the heart of the heart of the city and the center of the focal point of conflict between Israel and Palestine. This area, less that one square kilometer, is a powder keg of nuclear proportions in terms of it volatility and potential for disaster. In the center of the heart, is of course, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary).
This is the most holy place for Jews in the world and the third most holy place for Muslims, and Palestinians see themselves as the protectors of al Aqsa – mentioned in the Koran and referred to as “the furthest mosque.”
For Muslims, the entire mount, and not only the buildings on the mount, are al Aqsa, the place where they believe that the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven to receive the revelation of the Koran.
Moshe Dayan understood very well the potentially volatility of the site when he ordered that an Israeli flag raised on the Dome of the Rock be immediately removed. Israel then understood that if it attempted to change the status quo there it could bring about an explosion throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world.
In those days, we were all very fortunate because the overwhelming majority of mainstream rabbis, including the official Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel, determined that since we did not know the exact location of the Holy of Holies, Jews should not ascend to the Temple Mount at all. According to Jewish tradition, when the Messiah comes, the Temple will be rebuilt and then Jews will once again be able to pray on the Temple Mount.
In recent years, some Jews combining deep religious beliefs and extreme nationalism have decided that Jews should retake the Mount even before the Messiah comes, perhaps as a way of speeding up his coming. The demand of Jews to be allowed to pray there is understandable both from the position of religious importance and as an assertion of the right to free access to all holy places. If there was no conflict between Israel and Palestine it could even be possible to imagine the day when it could happen peacefully.
There is no prohibition in Islamic law – shariah – against people of other faiths praying on Haram al-sharif. But in the situation of conflict where the Muslims, in Palestine and in the Muslim world, are convinced that Israel’s intentions are to remove the mosques, prevent Muslims from praying there and rebuild the Temple, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict instantly becomes transformed from a political conflict into a religious war. This is the most dangerous scenario possible and too risky to support. The status quo must be maintained and if it is to be changed, it should only be done through negotiations and agreements and not imposed by force.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.