Shared Sovereignty, Jerusalem and the War of Ideas

July 21, 2007

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

From Iraq, to Kosovo to Lebanon to Israel and Palestine, we in the United States and the broader international community find ourselves struggling to find solutions to ethnic/religious conflict for control over territory. Despite recent setbacks, President Bush’s July 16th call for an autumn international peace conference on Israel and Palestine underlines both the importance—and the possibility—of a solution.

Central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been finding a solution for Jerusalem—and the holy city remains both the symbol and the cornerstone of the conflict between Israel and the Muslim world. It is also a symbol of America’s failure in the Middle East, and a lynchpin to winning the “war of ideas” with the Muslim world.

At a recent closed-door gathering of former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators hosted at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, one of the concepts that was rapidly and relatively easily agreed upon was the idea of “shared” sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem—known in international law as a “condominium”.

It was surprising to many of the seasoned American observers that these veteran Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were so ready to agree to share the holiest and most emotional part of their conflict—what lies between the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem—while they otherwise endorsed a barrier to separate themselves.

But why were they so willing to agree to share Jerusalem—so precious to both—while on other issues, they spent so much time haggling? And why were they not willing to share much else?

The answer: Experience. The Israelis and Palestinians in the room were mostly veteran negotiators who had watched peace talks fail in 2001 and weren’t willing to let that happen again. They had come to realize just how painful the issue of Jerusalem was for both sides, that neither side could feel whole without Jerusalem, and that separation arrangements were unworkable when emotions flared over a few feet of Jerusalem stone.

Although it took a decade, the Israelis realized that they could not be secure from Palestinian rancor if they deprived Muslim and Christian Palestinians of sovereignty over the Muslim Noble Sanctuary and the holy Christian churches. The Palestinian negotiators also acknowledged the corollary Israeli need for sovereignty over not only the Wailing Wall, but also the Jewish Temple Mount.

So far, so good. But when the Americans asked how this would work, the answer was vague: that a joint commission would be set up and the fine points could be worked out later. The absence of focus on a detailed, comprehensive plan, however, does not bode well for the future. Experience shows that the devil is in the details

The history of efforts at shared sovereignty is replete with unsuccessful experiences such as Trieste after World War II and, more recently, the ongoing struggle to maintain a shared arrangement for Brcko. These experiences do not mean that shared sovereignty cannot work and should not be tried. Instead, they demonstrate the need for complete buy-in at the local level, careful reflection by the parties, and rigorous study of the structure and history of shared sovereignty as a solution to boundary disputes. Moreover that there is a vital role for the relevant international powers, in this case the United States, to play.

To have the greatest chance of success, condominium requires the parties who are sharing sovereignty to have carefully negotiated a framework of laws in advance that both anticipates major issues and provides mechanisms to resolve disputes between the joint sovereigns.

The concept of a condominium dates back at least to the 13th century B.C., when it was adopted by the Hittite Empire and Egypt. And the most successful incarnations occurred in Europe during the 19th century when Germany and Belgium shared territory, and in an island chain in the South Pacific in the 20th (then the New Hebrides, a condominium between England and France; today, the independent nation of Vanuatu). What the success stories tell us is that, when properly conceived and thoughtfully implemented—with buy-in from the sovereigns—shared sovereignty can work.

American leadership on “shared” sovereignty in Jerusalem can help bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians. Equally important is the implicit message this will send to the Muslim world: that “shared” solutions for “shared” U.S. and Muslim world security can be found and that Americans are committed to making that happen.

Sometimes and in some places, conflict is so intractable that all but the most unlikely solutions are fated to fail. In those times and places, we need to try methods that have not been considered in the hopes that unconventional solutions will offer opportunities not available through line-drawing. This is such a time; Jerusalem is such a place; shared sovereignty is such a solution. And the benefits can be global.