Solving the Jerusalem Problem

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

March 18, 2010

Long after the humiliation of our vice president is forgotten, if not forgiven, and the president and secretary of State recommit themselves to the “rock solid” relationship with Israel, and the Israeli ambassador in Washington downgrades the hurricane to a tropical storm, there is still the issue of Jerusalem.

“O Jerusalem. If I forget thee, let my right hand wither,” goes the lament of the Babylonian refugees in Psalm 137. But forgetting Jerusalem, or at least putting it aside, is precisely what everybody involved in the latest efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been trying to do for the past year.

Those of us from the Clinton administration, who had tried in vain to resolve the Jerusalem issue at Camp David, warned the Obama administration from the outset that nothing good would come from touching it. In George Mitchell’s painstaking efforts to negotiate a settlements moratorium with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he conceded that the agreement would not include housing activity in Jerusalem. When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cried foul and insisted that he would not enter negotiations without a settlements freeze in Jerusalem, Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton managed eventually to convince him to enter indirect talks without any such freeze. And Mitchell also succeeded in convincing both sides to agree that if substantive negotiations ever get under way, they will focus on borders and security first and Jerusalem will be left until last.

In the midst of this latest crisis, even AIPAC did its best to forget Jerusalem. Amazingly, for the organization that once championed inflammatory legislation designed to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the “J” word does not appear in its recent statement denouncing the Obama administration’s treatment of Israel (none of Israel’s congressional advocates mentioned it either in their appeals to Obama to lay off Israel). And when Hamas tried to take advantage of the crisis to spark a third intifada over Jerusalem this week, the Palestinian Authority cooperated with Israel to tamp down the protesters.

It’s as if all the players involved in the peace-process melodrama have come to understand that the Jerusalem genie needs to remain in its bottle if there is to be any hope of resolving the conflict.

And yet all it took was a seemingly routine zoning decision in Israel’s interior ministry to expose the fragility of the whole exercise. Clearly, with all the will in the world, Jerusalem will not be forgotten. But it cannot be resolved either. Look at the Temple Mount for example. That’s the place where the ruins of the Jewish Second Temple lie, behind the Wailing Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. And yet on top of those ruins sits the Haram al-Sharif—the noble sanctuary—which contains the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site. Israel will not cede the sovereignty it asserts there; the Palestinians can never accept that claim.

Back in the Clinton years, we thought we could at least solve the issue of Jerusalem’s suburbs because its Arab and Jewish citizens lived apart. In his parameters, President Clinton proposed that the Jewish suburbs of East Jerusalem come under Israeli sovereignty and the Arab suburbs be ceded to Palestinian sovereignty. Yassir Arafat was actually willing to accept that division, as was Ehud Barak. But today, Jewish settlers are moving aggressively into Arab neighborhoods while Arabs, denied permits to build in their own suburbs, are quietly buying residences in Jewish neighborhoods. If these trends continue, Clinton’s Solomonic solution will become unworkable.

If it therefore cannot be resolved, and it will not be forgotten, Jerusalem somehow has to be managed so that the other issues that are more amenable to resolution can be dealt with. That’s why Hillary Clinton is right to insist that Netanyahu fix the latest mess and why Netanyahu’s inner cabinet was burning the midnight oil Wednesday night trying to figure out a way to do so.

Shimon Peres, Israel’s always-creative president, has come up with part of the remedy: Jews should be stopped from building in Arab suburbs while building in existing Jewish suburbs could proceed. But Peres does not go quite far enough. For the sake of equity, Arabs would also have to be provided with sufficient permits to meet their housing needs in their own suburbs. And the demolition of Palestinian housing, and evictions of Palestinian families in Jerusalem, would have to cease. In that way, Netanyahu would be able to say that he preserved the right of Jews to build in Jerusalem, while the Palestinians could feel that their rights to live peacefully there were not being trammeled in the process.

If the current crisis can generate that kind of interim solution for Jerusalem, it would actually do much to facilitate peace negotiations should they ever get under way. Palestinian negotiators would not have to fear that they would be accused of compromising their claims to Jerusalem by focusing on delineating borders in the West Bank first. And Israelis would not have to fear that the slightest misstep in Jerusalem would generate a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations. And no one’s right hand would need to wither.