The Changing Discourse on the Status of Jerusalem


When there is
a permanent status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians it is very
unlikely that one side will live under the sovereignty of the other in
Jerusalem. The discourse about Jerusalem has been changing and for the worse
because it is slipping into a religious issue rather than one of territorial
agreement. There is little doubt that Jerusalem is a volatile matter that
divides the Israelis and Palestinians. Moreover, no end of conflict or final
status agreement is going to exclude one side from claiming Jerusalem as its
capital. As of now, Jerusalem and its symbolic value is making the conflict
more difficult to grapple with and pushing the two sides even further apart.
There are a couple of reasons for this.

Settlers have
increased their presence in the neighborhoods around Jerusalem. There are more
settlers in places like Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah than ever before. The number
of these settlers has been growing and they are fast approaching a critical
mass that will make them difficult to extract. They will probably have to be
removed from their neighborhoods and that means violence. Their presence and the
willingness of the Israeli government to tolerate them is simply raising the
price Israel will have to pay for a final settlement.

Second, as
settlers and new Israeli neighborhoods pop up borders and dividing lines become
more difficult to identify. Some of these new neighborhoods have been built on
contested land and supported with private money. They are not likely to be
included in a final settlement and will make discussion of boundaries even more
difficult. The longer it takes to develop a two state solution the more complex
and convoluted the situation becomes. With the current pace of new
neighborhoods and arguments over geography, the situation on the ground in
Jerusalem will be so Balkanized that a solution will be impossible.

drips with significance, symbolism, and identity. An agreement that completely
satisfies both sides seems unattainable; hence, both sides must negotiate and
try to find a satisfactory agreement. The most common suggestions are:

  1. a special joint arrangement –
    with neither side declaring sovereignty – that has the two sides sharing the
    city. Religious, historical, and cultural sites would be under the purview of
    an international community charged with guaranteeing the safety and integrity
    of the sites. Freedom of worship would be guaranteed. This is essentially a
    compromise based on “sharing” Jerusalem with international
    involvement. Such an agreement seems “sensible” and
    “rational” but it undercuts the strength of the identity relationship
    that Palestinians and Israelis ascribed to Jerusalem. Many Israelis could not
    stomach the thought that Jerusalem in its full sense was not their sovereign capital
    and homeland. The same is true for Palestinians.
  2. a geographic division of the city
    whereby Israel controls and has sovereignty over its neighborhoods and
    Palestinians have control over theirs. This would require serious and difficult
    negotiation the results of which would be that every inch of land would have to
    be measured and parsed into either Israeli or Palestinian categories. The
    success of such negotiations seems doubtful. This solution does satisfy the
    sovereignty question, but only to a limited extent. Each side would have full
    control (both political and administrative) over its own areas, but whether or
    not this is satisfactory depends on the acceptability of the geographic
  3. the city is recognized as the
    capital of both Israel and Palestine and the two sides share political and
    administrative control. This is a desirable solution but one that requires the
    sort of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians that they are now not
    capable of.

Jerusalem as a sacred holy place rather than a negotiable geographic area makes
the discourse about Jerusalem more rigid and less susceptible to influence.
Moreover, it’s easy to talk about land swaps or exchanges, but such discussions
about geographical divisions must be of comparative value. The entire
definition of “what is Jerusalem” remains contested. Land currently
on the outskirts of what is considered Jerusalem could simply be annexed and
defined as Jerusalem. But the matter of comparative value will rear its head.
The Holy Basin (Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif) is certainly “worth”
more than any other neighborhood Jerusalem.

Earlier in the
history of the discourse around Jerusalem, Israel could have ceded East
Jerusalem to the Palestinians and allowed them to establish a capital. But
there has been recent settlement activity in East Jerusalem creating new facts
on the ground and making things more complicated. After annexing East Jerusalem
in 1967, Israel declared Jerusalem as its eternal capital. The Palestinians –
along with a few UN resolutions – do not recognize this declaration. Herein lays
the starting point for conflict resolution.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on August 28, 2011, in Israel and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Is it possible to even discuss such a detente without even a mention of the struggles ongoing in Libya and Assyria?

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