Jerusalem as a Political Issue

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Since Israel was established in 1948, Jerusalem’s diplomatic and international status has been controversial and unresolved. Neither violence nor proposed solutions – of which there were many throughout Jerusalem’s long history – have brought peace to the divided city.
Historic background
On November 29, 1947 the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181 (11), known as “The Partition Plan.” The resolution partitioned the British Mandate of Palestine into two states, one Arab and the other Jewish, with Jerusalem defined as a corpus separatum – a separate body under UN protection. The plan was never implemented. The War of Independence led to the city’s division. When a cease-fire was reached, Israel controlled the west part of the city while Jordan controlled the east side. In 1949 Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion established Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Jordanians annexed East Jerusalem, including the Old City.
Neither Jerusalem as the capital of Israel nor the Jordanian annexation were recognized by any state or official international organization, on the grounds that Resolution 181 could not be canceled except by agreement between the parties. From 1949 to 1967 the city remained divided, with the Jordanian part being separated from the Israeli part with no man’s lands, fences and barriers. During that time, very few attempts were made to change the situation.
During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Directly after the war Israel redrew the boundaries of Jerusalem and applied Israeli law within the new boundaries. The new borders made East Jerusalem ten times bigger than the old Jordanian East Jerusalem, and included 28 Palestinian villages that were previously not part of the city, and two refugee camps that became Jerusalem neighborhoods. The expansion of the city’s boundaries and application of Israeli law were de facto annexation, even though annexation was not declared out of fear of a severe international reaction. In November 1967 the UN passed Security Council Resolution 242 calling for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, but Israel never accepted its validity for Jerusalem. At the same time, despite being annexed, the Palestinians who found themselves under Israeli rule did not receive full civil status but the status of permanent residents. This status gives them the same rights and responsibilities of citizens but allows them to vote only in local elections and not in national elections, prevents them from holding Israeli passports and can be revoked if the resident stays out of town for a certain amount of time.
To establish Israeli rule over the Palestinian population that did not want it, Israel used the “stick and carrot method.” On the one hand, it granted the Palestinians of Jerusalem more welfare services and rights than it did to the Palestinians under military occupation in the territories. On the other hand, any expression of Palestinian nationality was suppressed and the Israeli hold on the land was strengthened by the massive construction of neighborhoods for Jews in East Jerusalem. In 1980 the Knesset passed Basic Law: Jerusalem, providing that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel” and “the seat of the President of the State, the Knesset, the Government and the Supreme Court.” UN Security Council Resolution 478 completely rejected and denounced the “Jerusalem law.” But the first intifada that broke out in December 1987 made clear that the Palestinian national and religious connection to Jerusalem is a fact that cannot be ignored. In 1988 the Hashemite Kingdom relinquished its claim to the West Bank, including Jerusalem, to the Palestinian national movement led by the PLO, and Jerusalem became one of the core issues that must be resolved in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Negotiations over Jerusalem until the Oslo accords
During those years there were hardly any negotiations, official or unofficial, over Jerusalem. Israel refused direct negotiations with the PLO until 1993. Many reports said that the US State Department treated Jerusalem as “the J word,” a subject whose very mention could foil negotiations and set the region on fire. The complexity of Jerusalem, in its municipal, religious and governmental aspects, led the parties’ representatives to believe that finding a model that would match the interests of all sides was doomed to fail.
However, under the auspices of European governments, the EU, semi-governmental agencies and civil society organizations, Israelis and Palestinians gradually began to meet and discuss the city’s future. By 1993 there were dozens of groups working through unofficial channels, some of which dealt with functional aspect and others with political solutions to the conflict. Despite the difficulties, groups that were not bound by the constraints of official negotiations, managed to come up with new ideas and concepts. These include special solutions for “the holy basin” (the Old City and its surroundings), “functional autonomy,” “demographic sovereignty” over people as opposed to sovereignty over territory, new definitions of the city limits and complex patterns of separation and integration.
In 1993, the “Oslo channel,” which had been operating for several years under a cloak of secrecy, became public and the Israeli government adopted the process officially. In September of that year, the discussions led to a joint declaration of principles by Israel and the PLO and constituted a basic change of Israeli policy: for the first time Israel showed a willingness to negotiate over Jerusalem as a political and national issue and not only as a religious issue. But even the Oslo Accords, which were a series of temporary interim agreements, stated that the question of Jerusalem would be postponed until discussions over a final settlement, and only after agreement was reached on the other subjects and trust was built between the sides.
Nonetheless, it was clear to everyone that there was a close connection between the question of Jerusalem and the other elements of the declaration of principles. Israel planned and delayed its redeployment in the West Bank in an attempt to hold onto “bargaining chips,” such as future demands for concessions in Jerusalem. Israel also initiated massive construction in East Jerusalem to establish facts on the ground ahead of the discussions, as did the Palestinians, who encouraged construction to create continuity between the Palestinian neighborhoods in the city’s north and south and the West Bank. Even though it was not stated openly, the Oslo accords served as an introduction to the Camp David summit meeting in July 2000, where the issue of Jerusalem was officially discussed for the first time.
Indefinite postponement of discussion over Jerusalem again increased the importance of unofficial negotiations. The most comprehensive unofficial talks were held under a cloak of secrecy in the years 1994-1995, and led to the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreements. Even though Jerusalem was not a key element of that document, it introduced new ideas into the public discourse about Jerusalem, such as a “super municipality” with two secondary municipalities beneath it: one Israeli, which would be responsible for the Western city and the Israeli neighborhoods in the East, and the other Palestinian, which would be responsible for the Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and in the suburbs. The Jewish municipality would administer Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and the Palestinian municipality would administer al-Quds, the capital of Palestine. It was also agreed that the Palestinians would wave their flag over Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, but the compound itself would be under exterritorial sovereignty.
Both sides’ optimism as to a possible breakthrough collapsed in the wake of the wave of suicide attacks in the mid-1990s in which hundreds of Israelis were murdered and which focused on Jerusalem, and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in June 1996, defeating Shimon Peres with the intimidation campaign: “Peres will divide Jerusalem.” Under the new government the peace process came to a standstill and finally even Abu Mazen gave up on it.
Negotiations over Jerusalem at Camp David
In an attempt to break out of the cycle of futile discussions, in July 2000 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PA Chairman Yasser Arafat met US President Bill Clinton at the Camp David state. The question of Jerusalem, and especially the issue of Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, became the focus of the summit meeting and the main reason for its failure.
There is no official record of the Camp David talks and there are many versions of different participants with different explanations of how the talks failed and who was responsible. During the meeting, Israel proposed a complex model of sovereignty and control. The proposal included full Palestinian control of al-Quds, comprised mainly of the outer circle of Palestinian neighborhoods, in exchange for expanding the city limits and annexing to Israel the nearby settlements.
The Palestinian neighborhoods closest to the city center and the historic basin would remain under Israeli sovereignty, but the Palestinians would be given municipal autonomy in them. In the holy basin and the Christian and Muslim quarters of the Old City there would be formal Israeli sovereignty but the administration and functional government would be Palestinian. Israel also agreed to establish a Palestinian presidential compound in the Muslim quarter. According to the proposal, Haram al-Sharif would be under functional Palestinian control, including the right to wave their flag at the site, but sovereignty would remain Israeli.
The Palestinians, for their part, demanded complete sovereignty and control of all of East Jerusalem including the holy sites, first and foremost Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and the dismantlement of all of the Israeli neighborhoods built beyond the Green Line. The Palestinians also objected to the Israeli demand to establish a prayer area for Jews on Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and completely rejected Israel’s religious and historic connection to the holy places. An alternative proposal that was also discussed at the meeting would have given Palestinians sovereignty over the surface of the mountain and Israel sovereignty beneath ground level, including the Western Wall, but the Palestinians rejected the proposal.
The failure of the Camp David summit left the clear impression of an unbridgeable gap between Israel’s most far-reaching offers and the Palestinians’ minimal demands. The failure of the talks, along with the mistrust over the diplomatic stalemate during which construction of settlements accelerated, and opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s provocative ascent of Temple Mount, set off the second intifada, called the al-Quds Intifada, which quickly escalated from popular protests that met a strong Israeli response to a second wave of terror aimed at civilians, in which one third of casualties on the Israeli side were in Jerusalem.
The political horizon
Despite its failure, the Camp David summit broke the taboo on discussing Jerusalem and undermined the common assumption that the sovereignty and borders established unilaterally by Israel were unchangeable. The very fact that maps were drawn and alternative practical solutions were discussed helps dispel the myths surrounding the question of Jerusalem. For the first time since the Six-Day War Israelis showed a willingness to challenge their own assumptions and discuss basic questions such as: what is included in the city limits of Jerusalem and what are Israel’s interests in it? Which parts of it are negotiable and where should its borders rest?
In the shadow of the rising violence of December 2000, US president Clinton proposed a document of principles for a political settlement to Jerusalem. Under these “Clinton parameters,” Israel would have sovereignty over the Western Wall and “symbolic ownership” of Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which would be under Palestinian sovereignty. The parties would share the archaeological and structural excavations underneath the mountain. East Jerusalem and the Old City would be divided along ethnic-demographic lines: the Israeli neighborhoods would be physically connected to the Western part of the city and remain under Israeli sovereignty. The Palestinian neighborhoods would be transferred to Palestinian sovereignty, physically connected to the West Bank and constitute the capital of Palestine. Israel officially accepted the Clinton parameters for division of sovereignty in Jerusalem with reservations. The US administration accepted Israel’s willingness to negotiate on that basis and rejected the more substantial reservations submitted by the Palestinians.
Between July 2000 and January 2001 there were more than 30 meetings at different levels in an attempt to reach a breakthrough, but to no avail. In January 2001 the sides met again in Taba in a last attempt for the present round of talks. The Taba summit ended in failure and the peace process was suspended. In June 2002 the “Quartet” submitted a document of principles known as the “Roadmap to Peace” calling for a Palestinian state to be established alongside Israel. Israel formally accepted the document, but this acceptance did not seem to have any practical implications. In 2002 the Arab League issued the Arab Peace Initiative (API) offering full normalization of relations between the entire Arab world and Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and an agreed solution of the refugee question on the basis of UN Resolution 194. This initiative was completely ignored by the Israeli governments but in 2011 an unofficial Israeli group called the Israeli Peace Initiative was established as a grassroot response to the Arab initiative.
The most important unofficial initiative was the Geneva Initiative. Launched in December 2003 after two years of secret talks between Israeli and Palestinian figures, including some who had been part of official negotiations such as Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abu Rabbo along with civil society figures, the Geneva Initiative published a model for a final settlement that should have put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was based on the previous official agreements, international resolutions, the Clinton parameters, the roadmap and the API, and provided a detailed practical interpretation of the Clinton parameters for the division of sovereignty in Jerusalem while maintaining its function as the capital of two states.
The Israeli Futura Institute and the Palestinian International Peace and Cooperation Center sponsor yet another multidisciplinary working group that has developed a joint vision and a multitude of possible scenarios for Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem. The scenarios show clearly that without momentum towards a resolution the situation in the city will deteriorate. Thee scenarios, therefore, are meant to provide incentives to finding an agreed solution. The group also developed strategies for the parties and the international community for moving forward and preventing the anticipated deterioration. At the end of the agreements, according to this group, the city will remain “divided politically and united geographically.”
In 2011 the press reported that the 2008 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni negotiated with the Palestinian Authority. According to the reports, Olmert proposed international control of the holy basin and a joint team to administer East Jerusalem until a final settlement was agreed. The Palestinians showed a willingness to give up most of the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The press reports also said that the Temple Mount issue was not discussed in detail but the sides had agreed in principle that “creative solutions could be found.” However, the current prime minister publicly opposed any division of the city and rejected Olmert’s proposals. A Jordanian initiative to restart direct negotiations in November 2011 also failed.
It is clear to all that a solution in Jerusalem will require addressing the three elements of the conflict: the religious, the political and the municipal, allowing all residents of the city to express their historic, spiritual, national and cultural identities. In the absence of such a solution, Jerusalem’s political status as the capital of Israel can be expected to continue to go unrecognized by any country except Israel, and the unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem will continue to be perceived as illegitimate. The insistence of Israeli governments to continue to build in East Jerusalem is a constant source of tension between Israel and its closest allies, and government support for the Judaization of Palestinian neighborhoods by way of settlement of right-wing organizations is expected to thwart any compromise or normalization of relations with Palestinians in the city. Jerusalem is at the very heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and therefore also at the heart of its solution. Even without serious negotiations, unilateral steps that change the situation on the ground are expected to make the difficult situation worse and prevent reaching a resolution to the conflict in the future.

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