To outsiders life in Jerusalem can seem like an impossible situation. How can three monotheist religions harmoniously pray at the same temples to different Gods? The set up sounds illogical, but perfectly explains why earth's holiest city is also its most contested.
Can Israelis and Palestinians share Jerusalem, or is there only room for one at the top of the Mount?
History’s opinion is an emphatic no. According to Eric H. Cline, author of Jerusalem Besieged, the city has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 seperate times, and captured 44 times as recently as 1948 and 1967. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likely dwells deeply on these stats.
For now Jerusalem is Israel’s by Basic Law, citing a thorough case for historic-religious precedent, but history has demonstrated how fickle ownership is. Netanyahu is doing everything possible to buck the trend as evident in his recent speeches on Palestine, and was quick to draw after the US State Department summoned Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to protest a building project developed by Irving Moskowitz in East Jerusalem.
“I was surprised by the U.S. move,” Netanyahu told his cabinet. “In my conversation with Obama in Washington, I told him that I could not accept any limitations on our sovereignty in Jerusalem. I told him Jerusalem is not a settlement, and it has nothing to do with discussions on a freeze. I won't cave in on this matter.”
Netanyahu defended the right of private Israeli citizens to buy any property they want in Jerusalem and he has a point while the city remains in diplomatic limbo. Of course the same argument is used for prohibiting settlements. Netanyahu likened Jerusalem to New York, London, Paris, or Rome, cities he knows possess a fraction of Jerusalem’s ethnic and religious divisions.
Palestinians would wish away Netanyahu if they could. Senior negotiator Saeb Erekat quickly complained, “All this means dictations and not negotiations.” Following the lead of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who recently urged President Obama to draft a new peace plan, Erekat warned Obama “to speed up the implementation of commitments on all parties.”
But Obama has yet to create a positive atmosphere and is a suspect Palestinian ally. The day after securing the Democratic nomination, he told AIPAC, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” He recanted the next day from political pressure, more proof of his real position, and it's too late to pretend otherwise. Obama's pressure to halt Israeli expansion in East Jerusalem has only raised demand for property and spurred a buying rush.
The past, present, and future suggests that peace in Jerusalem is forever elusive. Both Israelis and Palestinians are more unyielding over Jerusalem than any other final status issue. The Holy City is the crown jewel, the one present a child wants more than all the others combined and won’t be happy with anything less. Jerusalem’s history has been obliteration more often than cohabitation, but war is not a viable option for Israelis or Palestinians.
A raw deal for either side will sink both their futures and the current road leads down this direction. Palestinians, realizing this, have no motive to negotiate final status issues if the end is Jerusalem and that end has already been decided in Israel’s favor. A permanent two-state solution is impossible unless Jerusalem is equitably resolved.
Three vague terms desperately need examination: undivided, sovereignty, and capital.
A “divided” or “undivided” Jerusalem is a great source of confusion. Is a wall necessary to carve the city in two or would a border suffice? If a border was drawn, could Israelis and Palestinians transit freely like in the EU, or will the ridiculously slow process of travel visas persist? Security walls and strict border control are long-term disasters, not solutions. A divided Jerusalem is unstable.
Both a divided or undivided Jerusalem would compromise Israel’s sovereignty. Netanyahu says he’ll take no orders from Palestinian authorities; can this be done in tandem with Palestine taking no orders from Israel? Sovereignty will likely be compromised on both sides, as they cannot share an undivided throne while Jerusalem is controlled by remains or the other.
Therefore peace depends on whether Jerusalem can double as a capital for separate states, a daunting logistics and security challenge. Israel often allows that Jerusalem can be Palestine’s “spiritual capital” so long as Israel maintains physical control, an intolerable arrangement for Palestinians. Authority must be equal if Jerusalem is to be successfully administered by two states.
But Netanyahu couldn't help boasting, "In my previous term, I built thousands of apartments in the Har Homa neighborhood of Jerusalem, defying the entire world." He seems bent on yielding no ground, as if Obama is testing his manhood.
Initially assume that Jerusalem can have only one king of the hill. It’s nice to dream that Israelis and Palestinians could share the crown, but realistically Jerusalem remains a zero-sum game where each side gains at the other's expense. Special envoy George Mitchell regularly declares a two-state solution is the “only viable political solution.”
If Netanyahu and Palestinians can’t be persuaded to share Jerusalem, neither President Obama nor anyone else has a chance of finalizing one.