Security, Morality Demand Sharing with Palestinians


Washington Jewish Week, November 1997


Israel has agreed to negotiate the Jerusalem question in the permanent-status talks, yet no serious com­promise proposal is likely to be accepted by the Netanyahu government.

            This is unfortunate. On both moral grounds and in terms of national secu­rity, the right course of action for Israel is to share sovereignty over East Jerusalem, including the Old City. Indeed, the two perspectives are linked; genuine security requires that there be moral recognition of the partial validity of the claims of the other side.

            From the point of view of Israeli national security, the case for sharing East Jerusalem is compelling. There is a real chance for lasting peace with both the Palestinians and the Arab world, but that peace cannot be attained with­out compromise on the Jerusalem question.

            The starting point is to realize that Palestinian attachment to Jerusalem is no less powerful than that of Israelis. A recent study by the University of Mary­land’s Center for International and Secu­rity Studies found that 94 percent of Palestinians would not support recog­nizing Israel’s claim that it alone is sov­ereign over all of Jerusalem, even if that was the only way that a Palestinian state could come into being.

            Were the PLO or any subsequent Pales­tinian leadership to agree to an Israeli claim to exclusive sovereignty, that lead­ership would be overwhelmingly rejected by the Palestinian public.

            Of course, neither Arafat nor any suc­cessor to him would ever agree to exclusive Israeli sovereignty. Not only would this be political suicide, it would be viewed by the leaders themselves as both the abandonment of Palestinian national­ism and a betrayal of their responsibility for Muslim claims to Jerusalem. What might be agreed to is some variant of the formulation arrived at between for­mer Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin and PLO negotiator Abu Mazen in which a Palestinian flag flies over the mosque compound on the Temple Mount and the question of East Jerusalem sovereignty is postponed.

            While this may yet prove to be a viable interim proposal, it is not a stable final­ status resolution. There are 170,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem. Some 28,000 of them live within the Old City, constituting 90 percent of the pop­ulation living within the walls. This 170,000 constitutes approximately one out of every 10 Palestinians in the West Bank/Jerusalem area. What happens to these people?

            The issue of the sovereignty of the areas where they live will continue to demand resolution. While it can be postponed for a while, the danger is that we will replace the diffuse Israeli/Arab conflict with a Jerusalem-centered conflict.

            Consider now this same issue from the moral point of view, specifically from the point of view of the question, “To whom does Jerusalem rightfully belong?” This is not a question that can be deci­sively resolved, except to say that there is no clear-cut answer.

            Jewish claims to Jerusalem are diverse and powerful. From a religious point of view, there is God’s explicit covenant with Abraham, that it is through Isaac and not Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, that the land of Canaan, includ­ing Jerusalem and the West Bank, is given to the Jewish people.

            Religion aside, Jewish historical claims have enormous power. For more than 1,000 years, Jerusalem was the cap­ital of a Jewish state and was only lost to the Jewish people as a result of an unjust war waged by Rome. For 1,900 years of Diaspora, in their hearts and prayers, Jews never lost the centrality of Jerusalem. Moreover, except when forcibly prevented, there has always been a Jewish presence in Jerusalem, and for much of the past 100 years, a Jewish majority.

            But what of Palestinian and Muslim claims? How is the Jerusalem issue is perceived from the other side? First, reli­giously, Muslims see themselves as Abra­ham’s children through Ishmael. It is this incorporation of the Hebrew prophets within Islam that is the explanation of why Mohammed, at first, had his followers pray toward Jerusalem. And this is why, within the Islamic tra­dition, Mohammed is said to have come to Jerusalem and ascended to heaven from the Temple Mount.

            For almost the entire history of Islam, since the day the Christian rulers of Jerusalem surrendered the city to the Caliph Umar in 638 C.E., Jerusalem has been a city under Islamic rulers, the great exceptions being the Crusader Kingdom and the recent period.

            With respect to the historical and reli­gious claims of both sides, it is worth remembering that up until the middle of the 19th century, Jerusalem was essen­tially the Old City. The Old City rep­resents only 1 percent of the geographical area of today’s city. Moreover, even what we today call East Jerusalem does not now represent the eastern half of the city when it was divided between Jor­danian and Israeli rule. Ninety percent of East Jerusalem consists of areas of the West Bank that were added to the city when ·its borders were redefined after the 1967 reunification.

            What really matters to Israelis in East Jerusalem, other than the Old City and the Mount of Olives, are the Jewish neigh­borhoods built in the post-1967 period. These are viewed as a vital part of Jerusalem because Israelis live there. And for analogous reasons, Palestini­ans view the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as inalienably theirs.

            Of particular interest, and of great potential significance for the resolution of the Jerusalem question, is the fact that Israeli Jews do not view the bor­ders of Jerusalem as sacrosanct, and when certain motivations are tapped,’ they are quite willing to redefine Jerusalem so as to have a smaller, more Jewish city. Thus, when asked, “In order to ensure a Jewish majority, do you sup­port or object to redefining the city lim­its so that Arab settlements and village...will be outside the city?” 59 percent of Israeli Jews supported the proposal.

            By redefining the city boundaries, and by some form of shared rule over the Old City, the Jerusalem question can be resolved. To do so will address Pales­tinian and Muslim claims, and thus what is righteous also will provide a basis for peace and security.