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What to do with Jerusalem

By: Yoram Peri, CGNews


WASHINGTON, DC - Ever since Israeli-Palestinian talks began nearly two decades ago, it's been clear that Jerusalem would be the thorniest problem of all. Because of this, the prevailing assumption has been that Jerusalem would come last in negotiations, once the issues of borders, security, the settlements and even Palestinian refugees would be resolved. But this spring, Jerusalem became not only a barrier to the conclusion of negotiations, but also delayed Palestinian consent to participate in indirect "proximity" talks in the first place.

The very mention of Jerusalem evokes emotions that can preclude rational discussion. On this issue high rhetoric is treacherous. The only way to disarm this minefield is to focus on practical solutions, leaving symbolism behind.

First, the facts: Until the 1967 War, Jewish Jerusalem, on the west side of the city, comprised 9,390 acres, while Jordanian Jerusalem, on the east side of the city, comprised only 1,482 acres. But in the aftermath of Israel's lightning victory and the dramatic return to Judaism's Holy Sites, Jerusalem's municipal boundaries were expanded to include not just Arab East Jerusalem, but open areas, villages and refugee camps situated deep in the West Bank. Israel immediately began to create facts on the ground by settling all these areas with Jews.

Today, it's patently clear that Israel's own interests necessitate relinquishing those large swaths of greater Jerusalem that are densely populated by Palestinians. What Israeli interest could possibly be served by holding onto the Shuafat refugee camp? The same goes for several of the Arab villages, like A-Zaim, El-Azariya or Isawiya, situated at the edge of the desert and hardly visited by Jews since 1967. In the future these will only be a burden on Israel-devoid of any strategic, historic or symbolic importance. Bottom line: If Israel wants to preserve West Jerusalem's Jewish character, it is in its own interest to reduce the number of Palestinians residing within its boundaries.

The expanded city's new Jewish neighbourhoods (such as Gilo, Ramot, Pisgat-Ze'ev-and also the 1,600 units in Ramat Shlomo that caused the standoff during US Vice President Biden's recent visit) are another story altogether: These were built beyond the Green Line, but in largely unpopulated areas, and are now home to some 200,000 Israelis. When Washington calls these "settlements", Israelis wince. They are part of Jerusalem for most Israelis-including a large portion of the peace camp.

The Clinton Parameters proposed in 2000 (and other subsequent draft peace plans, such as the joint Israeli-Palestinian grassroots based Geneva Accord) called for reflecting the demographic reality of the city-leaving the Jewish neighbourhoods of Jerusalem (even if in East Jerusalem) in Israel's hands and the Palestinian ones in the Palestinian state.

I believe President Obama would do well to adopt this position and to desist from demanding an Israeli construction freeze in the Jewish neighbourhoods. Taking practical considerations of moving Israelis out of these neighbourhoods and Israeli popular opinion into account, there seems little chance that these areas will not be part of Jewish Jerusalem's future contours.

On the other hand, Obama is absolutely right in demanding a halt to construction in East Jerusalem's Arab neighbourhoods. Palestinians will never agree to a two-state deal without a capital in Al-Quds (Jerusalem). Whoever supports Jewish construction in these Arab neighbourhoods is actually opposing the creation of a Palestinian state. Recognising this, President Obama was right in reacting furiously to Israel's announcement that it plans to construct 20 housing units in Sheikh Jarrah.

There is another element to resolving Jerusalem-and that is the Palestinian refugee issue. Unless Palestinians give up their demand for the return of more than a symbolic number of the 1948 refugees to Israel-a demand universally seen as undermining the state's Jewish character-most Israelis will not agree to a deal. This provides an opportunity for a trade-off. The two core issues of Jerusalem and the refugees will have to be traded off one another. The Palestinians will have to concede to Israel on refugees, and in return, Israel will have to concede on Arab East Jerusalem.

Washington has to understand this. To the Israelis, its message should be: If you want your demand on the refugees issue to be accepted, you must concede much of East Jerusalem, where the Palestinian capital will be. To the Palestinians, its message should be: If you want East Jerusalem as your capital, you must forego your demand for return of refugees to Israel. If the President does it now he will find a surprising degree of Israeli public support.

* Dr. Yoram Peri is a former advisor to Prime Minister Rabin, former editor-in-chief of the daily Davar, and is now the Kay Chair of Israel Studies and Director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).