The conventional wisdom in Middle East diplomacy is that the question of Jerusalem is best left for last. Given its sensitivities, few dare tread into its complexities. Instead, the focus has often been on dealing with Gaza first. During the Oslo process, “Gaza [and Jericho] first” was the accepted beginning, and Ariel Sharon chose an exit out of Gaza as the means of creating a new political reality. Even former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was kept busy with Gaza, and in particular the Rafah crossing – a level of diplomatic resolution unusual for someone at her level. Gaza is a crucial issue that demands attention and resolution; however, as we are witnessing today, leaving Jerusalem aside is not without consequences.
The recent violence has been triggered by two factors. The first is the threat of changes to the status quo on the Haram Al Sharif or Temple Mount, the holiest site in the city for both Muslims and Jews. The new and rising demand by right wing Jewish religious groups to pray on the platform is eliciting much negative reaction by Palestinians. Given the deep distrust about Israeli intentions, changing the status quo on that site is perceived as a further encroachement of Israeli control over a Muslim site. The desire to pray may seem benign, but, as long as the conflict remains unresolved, it weaves dangerously into the fiery politics around the site.
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The second factor has to do with the status of Palestinian East Jerusalemites. They compose one third of the population of the city, they have a special Israeli ID for “residents of Jerusalem”, but they are not Israeli citizens, and they view the Israeli presence as an occupation, mostly rejecting any role in municipal politics.
Their status points to a larger problem. Arab Jerusalem was always naturally connected to its Palestinian hinterland until Israel built the wall around the city for security reasons, separating it from the West Bank.
East Jerusalemites can still go to the West Bank, but the process is complicated and time consuming. More importantly, West Bankers need permits, acquired only with great difficulty, to enter Jerusalem. The natural social and economic linkages between the West Bank and Jerusalem have been broken.
Furthermore, over the last 10 years, East Jerusalem has undergone a slow but sure process of changes on the ground. From new Jewish settlements, to re-zoning of green space, to the renaming of street names, the Arab character and reality of the city is being slowly eroded in favour of Jewish identity.
Some Israelis believed that the economic benefits that accrued to Arab Jerusalemites through their blue residents ID and links to Israel, would keep them peaceful. However, the changing status of the city and the holy sites, alongside neglect of Arab areas, has trumped this approach.
The power of religoius symbols and national identity, as well as the need for authentic, and not ersatz, autonomy has turned out to be more powerful. Time ran out, and Palestinian Jerusalemites rejoined their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza in fighting occupation in its many forms. Indeed, the nature of the Palestinian violence, from the use of a car as a weapon, to knives and axes demonstrates that, terrible as they may be, these reactions are neither well-armed nor organised. They are grassroots reactions to the realities that Palestinians are living. The challenge for Israel is homegrown; East Jerusalemites are free to move in the city, and, by Israeli choice, the Palestinian Authortity has no role in the city.
These factors, together, point to the heart of the problem. Many Israelis, and especially the right wing, have long stated that Jerusalem is their indivisible capital. However, this has translated into changes in the nature the city and now, critically, the holy sites. The very idea that Jerusalem – a city of complex meaning and deep symbolism to billions across the globe – should be controlled by one side may be simply unsustainable, and require examination.
The very idea that Jerusalem – a city of complex meaning and deep symbolism to billions across the globe – should be controlled by one side may be simply unsustainable, and require examination.
Jerusalem is at the heart of Jewish history and faith, as it is for Christians and Muslims. The panoply of holy sites, especially in and around the Old City, mark these powerful connections, and many are angered when they cannot access them, or when their status appears to change. Israelis experienced these fears before 1967 and Palestinians do today; however, such concerns do not speak to unilateral control as the answer. Indeed, the deeply possesive, and sometimes aggressive, approach to these holy sites may be the very problem. It incorporates a denial and diminishing of the other that can hardly be called religious in any true sense. A lighter touch may provide greater possibility and stability.
The demands on Jerusalem, today and in the future, are many: the capital of two states, Israel and Palestine, the management of holy sites and pligrimage for three monotheistic faiths, and a living city that needs a functioning municipality. There is no shortage of studies and answers to managing all these issues; what is lacking is the political will to effect change.
Need for third parties
Given the international nature of the city, many of these solutions point to the need for third parties to play a role in the city. Whether through special arrangements or special regimes, this third party role will be necessary for the management of heritage and religious sites, as well as, potentially, for security matters. The Jordanian role, as stated in the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, also cannot be ignored in this regard.
Indeed, the question of security control will be most difficult for Israelis to compromise over. However, it is also one of the most basic barometers of whether various groups have equal treatment and a sense of legitimacy. Today’s reality leaves the doop open for further radical Israeli expansion. Unchecked, and lured by a potent mix of ideology and the holy sites, their actions have and will elicit an inevitable counter-reaction.
As John Kerry’s intervention demonstrated last week, talks on Jerusalem can no longer wait. This is not all bad news, the classic approach of leaving the city until last has left it vulnerable to the destructive desires of the most extreme. Practical and symbolic answers to Jerusalem may not only defuse current tensions, they may begin to unravel the very DNA of the conflict, the downward spiral around identity and possession, with positive ripples into the other areas of the conflict.
No doubt, Gaza requires immediate redress because it is an isolated and besieged place destroyed by war. Unfortunately, it has also served as a tragic convenience to distract diplomats and decision-makers from other equally important matters.
Jerusalem can serve as the necessary counterpoint to Gaza, and it may be time to consider a new twin set to begin to heal the wounds, the place with the largest human and humanitarian problem alongside the locale with the most symbolic weight: Gaza and Jerusalem first.
Many policymakers across the planet don’t dare to tread into this space, but leaving the wound in Jerusalem open is an act of irresponsibility by the international community.
The cost of doing nothing is now apparent for all to see.
John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.