Daniel Seidemann
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
October 30, 2007 - 1:15pm

Sit any Friday afternoon on the corner of el-Wad St. and St. Stephen's Road in Jerusalem's Old City, just opposite the Austrian Hospice. Thousands of Muslim worshipers throng to the mosques on Haram al-Sharif. Additional thousands of Orthodox Jews flock to prayers at the Western Wall. And the brown-robed Franciscans bearing the cross turn the corner and proceed to the Third Station of the Cross. Lest this picture appear overly idyllic: CCTV security cameras are ever present, as are patrols of the Israel Border Police, while a handful of messianic Jewish settlers dart out of the Muslim Quarter alleys.

In that one small scene, you can see it all. Three mutually incompatible religious narratives--Judaism, Christianity and Islam--and two mutually incompatible national narratives, the Israeli and the Palestinian, cohabit the same sacred and secular space, not larger than three sq. km. in size. Jerusalem has an undeserved reputation for being nitroglycerin--any random jolt causes it to explode. That's nonsense. For the past 1300 years, Jerusalem has been the counter-paradigm to a "clash of civilizations". It isn't "fuzzy-warm" or "touchy-feely", and no "it's-a-small-world-after-all" tunes waft in the air, but it works.

That's the good news. Here's the bad news. Jerusalem's Old City is also the playground for Muslim, Christian and Jewish exclusionary fundamentalists who seek, respectively: Jihad, Armageddon and Wars of Mitzvah. Jerusalem may not be nitroglycerin, but if handled poorly, i.e., by allowing the radical fundamentalists to romp freely, it becomes a small atomic device.

The upcoming Annapolis "event" is not merely an attempt to substantively address the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is also--and perhaps foremost--an attempt to realign the forces of moderation in the Middle East into a powerful albeit uneasy coalition that will not only combat but provide an alternative to an ascending radical Islam. As such, Jerusalem will not only be a prominent item on the Annapolis agenda. It will also be the physical embodiment of Annapolis' goals--a non-violent interface between Islam, the Arab world and the West--or alternatively, an embodiment of Annapolis' worst dreams: the place where the tectonic plates of Islam and the West crush and grind one another, with all that ensues.

For decades, Jerusalem has been peddled as the "most difficult to solve" and left to some undetermined future date. No longer: Jerusalem's time has come. Regardless of how counterintuitive this may sound, seriously addressing the final status issues relating to Jerusalem is one of the easier ways of generating high dividends at a reasonable cost.

Because we all know what it looks like: "it" being a reasonably detailed set of contours of a final status agreement in Jerusalem. It is all over but the body count. After one previous, and failed, round of negotiations in 2000, and after years of the convulsive violence of the second intifada, it is five percent of the geography and five percent of the substance that remain to be resolved. And these will always be last minute decisions cut out of the hides of two courageous national leaders, when that time comes.

Approaching Annapolis, the lines of engagement have been drawn. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert will pull toward a watery, amorphous declaration of intent. The Palestinians will push for a high-pixel agreement. If Olmert insists on fuzzy "declarations of intent" it is doubtful that Annapolis will take place, much less succeed. And the insistence on detail at this stage on the part of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is not only unnecessary, but in all likelihood counterproductive.

Between these two respective positions, the wording of a Jerusalem declaration almost invokes itself:

In the framework of a final status agreement, Jerusalem will be a politically divided city. The Arab neighborhoods will become Palestinian al-Quds, the Jewish neighborhoods Israeli Yerushalayim, both universally recognized as their respective national capitals. In the Old City and its immediate environs, there will be a Special Regime or special arrangements, none of which preclude a division of sovereignty even in these areas. This regime or these arrangements will assure the integrity and the sanctity of the Holy Sites of all religions, pay reverence to the historic status quo, and assure that the Old City is an open city accessible to all.

No less will suffice, no more is necessary.

The Palestinians insist that declarations alone do not suffice, and a timetable is critical. "Agreements to agree", they assert, have always failed in the past. Israel insists that it is the timelines that have always failed, and that progress should be "performance-based" rather than "calendar-based". Both are correct.

More than Israelis and Palestinians being separated by the "what", they are separated by the "how". Israelis assert: given our deep concerns over Palestinian governance, security issues and the longevity of an Abu Mazen government, we will never head straight to an implementable endgame. Palestinians retort: we will never revert to "incrementalism", which during the Oslo years only allowed Israel to strengthen its stranglehold over the Palestinians.

And once again they are both entirely correct.

If the Annapolis process is to succeed, it needs to provide final-status deliverables relating to Jerusalem even before the details of a final status agreement are worked out. These steps can and must be sober and incremental enough to address Israeli concerns while "final status" enough to demonstrate that these are far more than empty declarations.

The day after Annapolis, Orient House should be reopened with Abu Mazen empowered to receive foreign dignitaries there. Subject to genuine security concerns, East Jerusalem should be re-linked to the West Bank. An international effort is in order to assist the Palestinians to build the organs of civil society in anticipation of their assuming "full-stop" sovereignty in East Jerusalem. The world churches, along with Israel and Palestine, must engage in an intensive effort to revitalize the Christian communities and institutions in Jerusalem and in the Holy Land.

The list is endless, and it is doable. Olmert can afford to pay the domestic political price, and will not jeopardize any substantive Israeli interest. These steps will provide Abu Mazen significant dividends, allowing him to retort to Hamas accusations: it is I and my approach, and only these, which offer the Palestinians a chance to recover al-Quds. And these will signify for all involved that substantive progress is being made on the ground toward the goal of resolving the conflict.

By calling for an Annapolis meeting, the Bush administration has raised the ante. A cancelled or failed meeting will leave us on the edge of an abyss. The prospect of a chaotic Middle East ridden with al-Qaeda-Hizballah-Hamas fundamentalism will be real indeed. Seriously addressing the political future of Jerusalem and creating the "Jerusalem paradigm"--where civilizations don't clash, but meet--may well contribute to the Annapolis "event" becoming the turning point that the parties, the region and the world so desperately need. The alternative is unthinkable.


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