Shibley Telhami, a Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, is Author of Power and Leadership in International Bargaining: the Path to the Camp David Accords (Columbia University Press, 1992).
Under pressure to reach a comprehensive agreement that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all, both Israel and the Palestinians are insisting at Camp David II that the issue of sovereignty over Jerusalem be settled now. It’s a bad idea.
Israel believes that its willingness to make territorial concessions is best employed now to extract maximal Palestinian concessions on Jerusalem. The Palestinians believe that their willingness to end the conflict with Israel at Camp David is their best leverage to regain control over East Jerusalem. But a decision on Jerusalem sovereignty made now is bound to mobilize passionate opposition for one side or the other back home—and may be more than either Ehud Barak or Yasser Arafat can handle.
By “Jerusalem,” both Israelis and Palestinians refer largely to the Old City within the ancient walls that houses the most significant holy sites for Jews, Muslims and Christians. The symbolism evoked by these sites cannot be overcome by creative ideas of expanding the city’s boundaries.
This symbolism is, in some ways, bigger than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because it ultimately mobilizes Jewish and Muslim groups from outside the areas controlled by Arafat and Barak.Emotions run high on both sides when the issue of Jerusalem sovereignty is raised. When pollsters asked Palestinians if they agreed to Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem in exchange for Palestinian statehood in the rest of the West Bank and Gaza, an overwhelming majority rejected the Palestinian state if it did not include Jerusalem. In Israel, significant majorities have continually rejected the idea that a Palestinian state would be sovereign over the Old City, and Barak has declared this issue to be one of his red lines. If he were to agree to Palestinian sovereignty over the Old City, the measure would be roundly defeated in Israel.
In the Arab and Muslim worlds, no issue with Israel mobilizes more people. Jerusalem is celebrated and invoked in political, religious and social rallies. The rhetoric in the Arab world on this issue has intensified since the success of the Islamic Hezbollah operations forced the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. The dual message of militancy and religion has been put forth as an alternative to negotiations. Giving Israel sovereignty over the walled city would rally groups across the region against the deal. Unlike a powerful Egypt, which was able to withstand a decade of isolation in the Arab world for its 1978 Camp David deal with Israel, Arafat is too weak to prevail without substantial Arab nation support.
Beyond legal sovereignty, the day-to-day operations in Jerusalem today are problematic and must be changed. The parties must formulate an equitable agreement that addresses the practical concerns of both sides: municipal arrangements; control of religious sites; residency rights for both Arabs and Jews; “demographic balance” within the city; regulation of new construction; and access to the Old City by both Israelis and Palestinians.
The gap on all these issues has narrowed enough in the unofficial discourse to allow for creative, practical solutions. There may even be room for partially addressing the question of legal sovereignty by providing for respective Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty over some neighborhoods, without dividing the city, as one member of Barak’s Knesset bloc recently proposed. But no agreement can bear a one-sided decision on the sovereign status of the walled city.
Any accord coming out of Camp David will face passionate opposition; this has been a bloody and difficult 52-year-old conflict. Jerusalem may be the issue that can tip the level of passion over the edge. Both leaders will be making a mistake by spinning their wheels on Jerusalem sovereignty, when in fact their success on this issue may be more costly to them both than failure.
The trick for any successful approach to Jerusalem in the current summit will be to find a practical agreement that addresses the key concerns for both sides while containing the passions of sovereignty over the Old City.