Can Issue of Jerusalem's Status Be Resolved? despite Formal Timetables, the City and Its Future Are Cropping Up in Peace-Process Manuevers

By Alon Ben-Meir. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations York. | The Christian Science Monitor, June 22, 1994 | Go to article overview

Can Issue of Jerusalem's Status Be Resolved? despite Formal Timetables, the City and Its Future Are Cropping Up in Peace-Process Manuevers


Alon Ben-Meir. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations York., The Christian Science Monitor


THE 27th anniversary of Jerusalem's unification is being celebrated this month in Israel only a few weeks after the Palestinian self-rule agreement went into effect. Perhaps more than at any other time in the past 25 years the Israelis are concerned about the status of Jerusalem a few years down the line.

While in South Africa, Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat called for jihad (holy war) to liberate Jerusalem, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin responded by reaffirming Jerusalem's sovereignty as the eternal capital of Israel. Whether Mr. Arafat meant peaceful or violent struggle, the "battle" lines over the future status of the city have been drawn. Arafat's strategy was designed to rally Palestinian support, project East Jerusalem to the international community as an occupied territory, force a debate of the issue in Israel, and link future negotiations over Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank to the final status of Jerusalem.

Successive Israeli governments have held firmly to the position that the future status of Jerusalem was not negotiable. Undeterred by Israeli firmness, the PLO raised the question of Jerusalem at every turn. Finally, the Rabin government agreed to negotiate the status of the city within two years of the time self-rule becomes operative. The questions are: To what extent will Israel accommodate the Palestinians? And will the PLO accept any solution that falls short of making East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state?

For the Israelis, East Jerusalem represents their past and present, the source of their religious and cultural heritage. "Without Jerusalem, the majority of Israelis believe," said David Hartman, one of Israel's leading theologians, "there will be no future." The hope of returning to Jerusalem has been the main source of strength for Jews throughout their dispersion. Israeli religious leaders insist that long before Jerusalem was identified as the mystical destination of Muhammad's night journey to visit God's presence, it was consecrated by the people of Israel. In East Jerusalem "there stand the Jews' holiest shrines, the Temple Mount and Western Wall, which no Israeli," said Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, "could contemplate ever returning to Arab rule."

The Palestinians' claim to East Jerusalem seems as unequivocal as the Israelis'. They have been living in that part of the city, albeit under foreign rule, for centuries. They too have very strong cultural and religious attachments. Both the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aksa mosque, though third in importance after the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina, defy Israel's exclusive religious claim to Jerusalem. The Palestinians view Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state. Over the years, the PLO was relentless in driving political wedges into Jerusalem's unity to assert what they consider Palestinians' inviolable rights to the city. "The cement wall and the barbed-wire fences should never be returned," said Mr. Siniora, a prominent Palestinian leader, "but the present political situation, under which the Palestinians are denied their basic rights, must also not be allowed to continue."

Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have legitimate claims that must be reconciled with inescapable realities:

First, unlike any other place in Israel and the territories, Jeru-salem has the largest interspersed population - nearly 400,000 Jews and 150,000 Arabs. More than one-third of Jerusalems's Jewish population lives in areas of the capital beyond the green line. The Israeli consensus clearly indicates that no Israeli government could remove a single Jew from Jerusalem and stay in power for one day.

Second, while preserving the integrity of the separate characteristics of each ethnic quarter in the city, East and West Jerusalem have been fully integrated in every aspect of day-to-day life. …

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